Monday, August 10, 2009

Museum of Appalachia: Day 1

I’ve been planning this Mobile Studio trip for some time now. With the hope of spending a few days at the remarkable Museum of Appalachia. If you haven’t yet visited, have a look at their website at The website is nicely done, and offers a solid introduction to the Museum and its collection. Be sure while there to click on the “virtual museum” section. More to come soon, I’m told.

Year before last we visited this part of Tennessee. During that trip I discovered the museum and spent a half-day looking around. Well! That was hardly long enough to do justice to the gift shop!

Entrance Sign

John Rice Irwin is the Museum’s founder and dominating presence. His daughter, Elaine Irwin Meyer, now serves as executive director. But John Rice, as I heard him called by Museum staff, remains the unmistakable leader.

Field 1 This Monday, I arrived at the Museum’s entrance just after 10:00 a.m., and met Mr. Irwin walking toward the office. Accompanied by his ever-present beagle, Fred.

During just that brief brief conversation in the parking lot, a staff member driving a tractor stopped by with questions about maintaining one of the Museum buildings. Another called on his cell phone with what sounded like a similar request. Mr. Irwin then invited me to join him in the Museum restaurant for a cup of coffee. More on the restaurant later.

Restaurant 1 There I explained my interest in his project, and asked the usual questions about the origins of the museum. Mr. Irwin had heard every question before, it was obvious. But he was polite, patient, and helpful. After offering a few general answers, he suggested I spend some time looking through the collection, read one or two of the books he has written on the subject, and said we should talk again later. Good advice! More on the books too in a moment.

Field 2 This museum is huge. Covering at present between sixty and seventy acres. Nearly all accessible to visitors. The whole collection, as the name suggests, relates to the people of Southern Appalachia. From early times onward. Each artifact – whether a tiny household tool or a whole barn – offers insight into some aspect of how those people actually lived. What they were about. How they survived. How they understood their physical environment. Their religious beliefs. And, how they entertained themselves.

Field 3 All presented in an unpretentious, informal fashion, designed to inform rather than to impress visitors. The whole Museum has what the Official Tour Map describes as a “lived in” appearance rather than that of a formal exhibit. By design! No easy task.

Another guiding principle at this museum might be described as emphasis on “context.” Artifacts, no matter how many there are, give a visitor more insight when the context within which they were used is explained. Irwin wrote in The Museum of Appalachia Story that “A conscious effort is made to tie the objects to the people so that the artifacts become a sort of extension of that person who made, used, and cherished it” (p. 29).

This alone is an enormous undertaking! The photo below is of one collection. The leather shop. A Museum associate responsible for cataloging told me there are over 3,000 significant pieces in this single exhibit alone!

Leather Shop Imagine what that amounts to when the hundreds of collections that make up the Museum’s holdings are combined! So, read the information placards posted around each exhibit. They’re well worth the time.

In subsequent posts I’ll try to describe two different offerings of this remarkable place. The countless collections of particular artifacts – everything from arrowheads to exotic musical instruments. And the 35 or 36 buildings within which these artifacts are housed and displayed.

So stay tuned! Click here for the next page.

1 comment:

  1. Great Bob. Write faster, more pictures and more travel. I am having fits waiting for more.