Skip to site content
The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

Tennessee: A Docent’s Dream

Photo Courtesy Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Elvis Presley loved planes, and two of his private jets — the Lisa-Marie Convair 880, sporting 24-karat gold-plated seatbelts, and the customized Lockheed JetStar Hound Dog II — are on display at Graceland, his Memphis home.

Across the state in Sevierville, Tennessee’s contributions to aviation history are on display at the Tennessee Museum of Aviation. And in between, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville presents a wide range of changing exhibits, such as glass artists and the Old Masters.

Tennessee’s wealth of museums offers an array of topics that inform and entertain.

Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Laced with black wrought iron, cast aluminum doors and white Georgia marble, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts’ 1934 art-deco building originally housed Nashville’s main post office.

The Frist does not have a permanent collection but is the venue for traveling exhibits that rotate every eight to 10 weeks.

A Dale Chihuly installation opens Mother’s Day and, during the summer, Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art will also feature Chihuly’s glass among the gardens.

“Our installation will include a number of selections from his most famous series,” said Ellen Jones Pryor, director 
of communications at the Frist Center.

Also coming this year is The Golden 
Age of Couture: Paris and London, 
1947-1957, which broke attendance records in London, and The Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces From the Musée d’Orsay. The Frist is one of three venues worldwide for the show, which opens in October.

“Without a doubt, this is the most spectacular year in our nine-year history,” said Jones Pryor.

Were he still alive today, Elvis Presley would be celebrating his 75th birthday this August. Instead, he lives on through his music and at Graceland, which introduces fans to the man behind the music.

“To fans and music-lovers, Graceland is more than a historic home tour,” said Kevin Kearn, director of public relations for Elvis Presley Enterprises. “It’s the story of rock ’n’ roll, American culture and the music revolution of the 1950s.”

A yearlong 75th birthday celebration at Graceland will include numerous events, special exhibits and an online trivia game. A 75th-anniversary exhibit focuses on Presley’s rags-to-riches story, beginning in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he bought his first guitar at a hardware store.

Another exhibit, Elvis Presley, Fashion King, opens in March and runs for two years as Graceland’s first fashion-focused display.

“We liken it to opening up Elvis’ closet,” said Kearn. “It showcases his custom clothing; he picked out the material and decided the cuts.”

Graceland, designated a National Historic Landmark, was purchased by Presley in 1957 for $100,000 just after he recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” for RCA. The tour doesn’t include the upstairs, because Presley always met visitors downstairs and considered the second floor off limits.

Presley loved dramatic decor. The glitzy, predominantly white living room is anchored by a 15-foot white damask sofa and a full-length portrait of Presley. The television room wows in royal blue and bright yellow, down to the shag carpet, the bar counter and the stools. The Jungle Room, filled with exotic furniture and fake fur upholstery, reminded Presley of Hawaii, a place he dearly loved.

The Trophy Building chronicles Presley’s career from his teen years on the Sun Label to his first gold record. Grammies line the Hall of Gold, and Sincerely Elvis highlights his movie career. On display are his white shoes, his 1957 gold lame suit, and Priscilla’s and Elvis’ wedding outfits. The tour ends at the Meditation Garden, Presley’s burial site.

The Auto Museum showcases his numerous vehicles: his favorite Harleys, a two-door 1971 Stutz Blackhawk, motorized toys and the 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood Presley used for touring.

Tennessee Museum of Aviation

Aircraft constantly rotate through the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, which is next to the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport runway at Sevierville, and visitors are frequently treated to flight demonstrations.

Opened in 2001, the museum houses the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame and serves as the official repository and archives for aviation history in Tennessee.

  Courtesy Sevierville Chamber of Commerce

“Their focus is on flyable, war-bird aircraft,” said Amanda Marr, marketing director at the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. “You’re going to see oil pans under planes, because they have just been flown recently and are still airworthy.”

A 52-foot-long Wave Wall traces aviation history and highlights Tennessee contributors such as Sevier County’s Edward Huffaker, who worked with the Wright brothers, and “Mama Bird” Evelyn Bryan Johnson, who holds the national woman’s record for flight hours.

The Faith and Courage exhibit honors U.S. military chaplains from World War II through the present.

Thousands of artifacts include a roadster with needlepoint seats crafted specifically for Amelia Earhart and the Gen. Jimmy Doolittle Medal of Honor, awarded because of Doolittle’s World War II bombing runs over Japan.

For groups, a USO-style show can be arranged and performed under the wings of a rare P-47D Thunderbolt, a T-33 or an MiG17.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.