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Southeast Tourism Society: Ecclectic museums

Photo courtesy Ave Maria Grotto

When you travel, you never know when you’re going to encounter one of those strange and fascinating places that just stop you in your tracks. Maybe it’s a former state penitentiary that has become a tourist attraction or a museum that houses the world’s largest collection of ventriloquist dummies. It could be a re-creation of the city of Jerusalem, handmade in miniature.

Sometimes it’s not a strange place that catches your eye at all but a unique or unexpected item on display inside a museum. An eclectic collection of items and artifacts can add that touch of interesting detail to make a trip memorable.

Throughout the Southeast, small museums and other attractions offer a diverse and entertaining array of things to see and enjoy. Take a step off the beaten path, and you’ll find some interesting spots that are worth including on your next tour.

Ave Maria Grotto

Cullman, Alabama
On the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey just outside of Birmingham, Ave Maria Grotto is an outdoor museum that displays the remarkable life’s work of one Benedictine monk.

Courtesy Ave Maria Grotto

“The Grotto represents about 125 miniature structures that were put together over a number of years by one of the brothers that lived there,” said Tara Walton, director of tourism at the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It was a dream of his, and so he collected marble, pipes and coconut shells to craft a lot of the structures.”

The monk, Joseph Zoettl, constructed his first miniature building with leftover scrap marble recovered from a railroad accident. From there, he went on to build miniatures of numerous important religious sites from around the world, including famous Catholic churches, as well as archaeological sites from the classical world.

The grotto has become famous for its depictions of biblical scenes from Israel and is often referred to as “Jerusalem in miniature.”

“You walk through the grotto and see these miniatures that range in height from 6 inches to 6 feet,” Walton said. “It’s like a fairy land of what you would see in Bethlehem or St. Peter’s Basilica.”

Vent Haven Museum
Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
Just a few miles south of the Ohio River in northern Kentucky, the Vent Haven Museum is a ventriloquist’s dream come true — literally. The museum was started by amateur ventriloquist William Berger, a local man whose passion led him to collect hundreds of dummies and related items.

Courtesy Vent Haven Museum

“During his lifetime, he collected about 500 figures,” said curator Jennifer Dawson. “Today, the museum has about 750 figures on hand, and everything we get is through donations. We’re the only museum dedicated to ventriloquism in the world.”

Berger originally kept all of the dummies in his home. As the collection grew, though, he constructed a garage to house them and then another small display building as well. Today, the entire house and four outbuildings are part of the museum, displaying about 650 of the figures out in the open.

The museum is open seasonally from May through September, and groups can schedule tours in advance of their visit. During a tour, Dawson demonstrates how the dummies are operated and then points out some of the highlights of the collection, which includes both historic and modern dummies.

“One of my favorites is a little wooden head that was used by a prisoner in a Russian POW camp during World War II,” she said. “He used it to perform for the other inmates but also to earn extra stuffs of food.”

Visitors also see dummies dating back to the 1800s and two figures used by modern ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham.

Multicultural Center of the South
Shreveport, Louisiana
Inside a classical French Quarter-style building in Shreveport, items representing dozens of distinct cultures from all over the world are on display at the Multicultural Center of the South.

Courtesy Shreveport-Bossier CTB

“We feature the various cultures that reside here in the state of Louisiana,” said program director Janice Gatlin. “We have Korea, the Philippines, China and Japan. We have Africa on display, Iran, Greek, Italian, Native American, Creole, Cajun and Hispanic.”

All told, there are 16 different cultures on display in the museum, each in its own exhibit space. Many of the exhibits are arranged in scenes from a home, showcasing furniture, clothing, household items or other typical artifacts. Many of the items were brought over by immigrants when they first entered the United States.

The Chinese area depicts a bedroom with a large two-chambered bed that dates to ancient times. In the Native American area, visitors will find a corn grinder and other hand tools, and the Hispanic area features Aztec and Mayan artwork.

The museum staff can also work with groups to create an interactive experience related to some of the cultures depicted at the museum.

“If they come during May, which is Asian Pacific month, I dress up and do a Japanese tea ceremony,” Gatlin said. “We can also do origami activities, henna dolls or pinata making.”

Wilkes Heritage Museum

Wilkesboro, North Carolina
Some hallmark cultural institutions of the Southeast are on display at North Carolina’s Wilkes Heritage Museum.
“We have a room about the roots of stock car racing,” said museum director Jennifer Furr. “We have a 1949 Ford Coupe that was one of Junior Johnson’s first racecars. It’s on loan to us from a local citizen who was a good friend of Junior Johnson. A lot of people come through this area to see that car.”

One of the roots of stock car racing was the transportation of moonshine liquor, and the museum has a moonshine room that deals with the production and distribution of the homemade alcohol. Another notable exhibit is the 1859 jail that once held Tom Dooley, a North Carolina man whose high-publicity murder trial was popularized by a song in the 1950s.

Several rooms deal with the area’s military history and feature uniforms, weapons and other artifacts from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and more recent conflicts.

The museum also honors influential folk musicians from the area.

“We’re starting a new program on the history and heritage of music, where every year we highlight six different people from along the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Furr said. “We have luthiers, artists and promoters, and special kiosks that list inductees with their biographies and samples of their music.”

Delta Blues Museum
Clarksdale, Mississippi
Blues music found its voice in the Mississippi Delta region in the early 1920s and then spread throughout the country. At Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum, visitors can learn about the roots of the music and see items that belonged to some of its greatest practitioners.

Courtesy Delta Blues Museum

“We’ve been known for the blues since the early 20th century,” said Shelley Ritter, the museum’s director. “W.C. Handy was living here in 1902 when he heard a guy playing the blues just down the road. The music that came from here was known as the Delta blues, and a large part of the Chicago blues scene has its roots here in the Delta.”

Today, the museum honors the many influential musicians who hailed from or spent time in the Mississippi Delta region. A chief highlight of the collection is the small cabin in which blues pioneer Muddy Waters lived during his time on Scoville Plantation.

Exhibits include information on the likes of John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Little Milton, Jimmy Burns and others, as well as items that belonged to many of them.

“We have a B.B. King Lucille and Big Joe Williams’ guitar,” Ritter said. “We have some old Stella guitars, which were the instrument of choice for early blues musicians.”

In addition to the permanent displays, the museum features a series of rotating exhibits throughout the year, as well as regular music lessons for locals and visitors.