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Southern Collections of Note

National World War II Museum

New Orleans

Forget jazz, beignets and Bourbon Street, at least for a minute. Though all of these Louisiana staples are must-do’s in New Orleans, the Smithsonian-affiliated National World War II Museum is not only the top-rated attraction in the city but also one of the top museums in the country.

While the museum visit is self-guided, “we do have a VIP behind-the-lines tour Friday for up to 10 guests, with five hours behind-the-scenes access in the vault and lunch with a curator,” said Ruth Katz, director of group sales.

Katz also creates custom itineraries for groups combining the museum’s special multimedia features and live performances. “Beyond All Boundaries,” a 4-D film experience narrated by Tom Hanks and featuring Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Gary Sinise and others reading first-person accounts from the trenches, is a powerful introduction to the war and its effect on America. “Final Mission” is an 11-minute, standing submarine simulation experience with each guest manning a position on the final war patrol of the USS Tang, which sunk 33 Japanese ships during the war. The experience can accommodate 27 people at a time and runs three times an hour.

The museum’s Stagedoor Canteen features live dinner shows on Friday and Saturday nights as well as a matinee lunch on Wednesday. Through August, the canteen is featuring “Songs That Won the War,” and from fall onward, the Victones, a male vocal trio, will bring visitors the swing, big-band and jazz music of the 1940s.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Nashville, Tennessee

Spreading over 350,000 square feet, Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a world in itself.

“We have over 2 million objects, but only a 10th of that collection is on display,” said group sales manager Lisa Wilkerson. “Most people spend about two hours, but you can easily do a whole day.”

The visit to the main museum is self-guided, but visitors have the voice of Bill Cody from 650 AM, home of The Grand Ole Opry radio, in their ear for a narrated tour triggered by each room.

For the Legends, Lunch and Lyrics program, the Hall of Fame brings in the city’s top songwriters for talks over lunch on the unheard stories behind their hit songs, often Grammy Award winners. A member of Johnny Cash’s family, typically his son, who is a local music producer, can speak to groups for an artist-specific experience, or groups can become musicians themselves, working with a songwriter to create their own song and record it on-site.

To dive even deeper into the recording experience, the Hall of Fame also has a studio downtown, RCA Studio B, as part of its museum experience. Still a working studio, it’s been the site of hit recordings from Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and many more. After a guided tour, groups can lay down their own tracks with some of the same instruments used for decades of hit recordings.

American Civil War Museum

Richmond, Virginia

When, after just four months, the capital of the Confederacy moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, where it remained until the end of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis and his young family took up official residence in a white 1818 Neoclassical home originally built for the president of the Bank of Virginia.

Union soldiers arrived in 1865 to find the house intact and used it as their headquarters. The home later served as a school for a short time, but when the city threatened to tear it down, a group of concerned local women bought it to create a museum dedicated to the Confederacy and set about tracking down everything that had once been in the Davises’ home.

“When I show you Jefferson Davis’ desk chair, it is his chair,” said interpretation supervisor L. Bryce VanStavern. “There are no reproductions. The original lamps placed in 1828 have been there ever since. We have one of the first Confederate battle flags. We have the only portrait of Jefferson Davis done from life and his commission when he got into the U.S. Army. Once the museum opened, a lot of folks began donating things back to the museum, and that process continues.”

Today, groups can explore the 15,000-piece Civil War collection at the three-story museum adjoining the White House, which is a self-guided visit, although VanStavern organizes seminars with staff members for groups that want to go deeper.

“They’re only seeing 10 [percent] to 12 percent of the collection at any time, so there might not be anything that addresses their particular interest,” he said. “Talks about Civil War-era Richmond are the ones people gravitate most to, but we have a whole list, from the use of balloons for reconnaissance to the Confederate navy.” Groups are then split into sections of 25 for a 45-minute guided walk through the White House.

The American Civil War Museum consists of the White House, the Museum of the Confederacy and two additional sites: the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox and Historic Tredegar, a site just on the other side of town that includes the Richmond National Battlefield National Park and the Tredegar Iron Works, which produced trains and ships for the Confederate army.