The East Tennessee History Center is a hidden gem in the middle of picturesque downtown Knoxville, making history something you can walk through, listen to, respond to.
After you pass by the well-appointed gift shop, you encounter an old-school cityscape from around the early 1900s, with a corner drug store, a dentist’s office, and an old trolley car that have all been restored to like-new freshness. The drug store teems with spooky-sounding cures like “black-draught,” “uromide,” and “yeast foam” displayed in period cases, with a soda counter and apothecary accessories. The dentist’s office is behind glass, but you can go up in the trolley car (it’s even handicap-accessible, though it probably wasn’t the first time it was in service.)
The main exhibit is to the left, with a video presentation to start. The history starts in, ahem, pre-history, with ancient artifacts which are a good companion to the permanent exhibit at the McClung Museum featuring “Sandy” and many other pieces from archaic times. In fact, the McClung, the E TN History Center, and the Knox County Archives are all under the umbrella of the East Tennessee Historical Society, also at 601 S. Gay Street. The permanent exhibit at the E TN History Center shows Cherokee history before and after Europeans moved in, Revolutionary history, the State of Franklin, the Southwest Territory (of which William Blount was the governor…Blount Mansion is another nearby historical attraction) and the origin of the Volunteer State name.
The War of 1812 era was a sad one in Tennessee history with the Trail of Tears occurring around the time Tennessee became a state. There are also exhibits on the Civil War, the rise of the “hillbilly” concept, Tennessee’s amazing craft and music traditions, TVA, civil rights, Oak Ridge, and the 1982 World’s Fair. Whew!
The whole thing is a little disorienting if viewed quickly. Plan to allow some meandering time to go from the past to the present. It’s presented as a whole, all in one direction, which is an unusual setup, but it does show progress all in one swoop. It’s not exhaustive or super-pretty, but it’s informative, clear, and concise, and totally not as boring as one might expect. It’s a good introduction to Tennessee history and a good refresher for those who haven’t been on a school field trip in a while.
The Vanishing Appalachia exhibit is deeply affecting and certainly worth a visit before it goes. It features pictures by Don Dudenbostel, as well as wood carvings, paintings, recordings, and other historical items. It’s like a trip down memory lane…if that lane happens to be Clinton or Chapman Highway back about 25 years or so. There are shots of snake handlers, KKK rallies (including a full robe and a women’s mask), fighting cocks, old gas stations, mule skinners, and Mennonites. There are pictures of individuals, ranging from a young girl all the way to Popcorn Sutton. This is East Tennessee as it used to be, changing so fast it can barely be caught by a camera.
Appalachia is defined by its mountains, with hillbilly culture at odds with American society at large. Progress opens up isolated areas to a broader world view, and that’s not all bad, but it comes at the price of an easily-defined identity. Corn whiskey is being edged out by high-fructose corn syrup. Lives defined by place and agricultural traditions are being influenced by the internet, smart phones and factory farming, mega-churches and celebrity gossip. A bellyful of cold spring water is not enough of a joy in a world in which right and wrong are much more nebulous than they used to be.
The bitter ache of nostalgia creeps in along the edges of every picture, the clever defiance of East Tennessee getting ground down by the day. Sometimes these people were wrong, but they knew who they were, and conformity is a heavy burden to bear in a quickly changing world. This exhibit shows a time when things were easier to figure out, when insiders and outsiders were easier to tell apart. The ghosts are caught for posterity in these pictures, with no judgment on right or wrong, just a record of what was. It is unsentimental, unsettling, beautiful, and haunting.
This is what history, what arts and liberal arts education are supposed to be about. A record without editorialization, without advice or comments beyond what’s needed to put things in context. This exhibit provides plenty of information for you to make up your own mind about a difficult subject–what happens to a marginalized culture when it is brought into the center. There are no easy answers, and you’ll probably leave with more questions than when you came, but that’s what history’s good for.
Visit the website at http://easttnhistory.org
Admission is free on Sundays, which is probably the best time to go. Parking can be limited and expensive on weekdays, which is still a bit of an issue on weekends but at least you can park for free in city garages. Skip the one on Locust Avenue–it’s poorly designed and confusing. Walk a couple of extra blocks and park in the one by Market Square (probably best to go down Wall Street to reach it.) There are also parking lots and metered spaces nearby the museum if mobility is an issue, though price may be a factor. It’s easy to make a day of your trip to downtown Knoxville–maybe visit the Downtown Art Gallery at 106 S. Gay Street or go to Market Square, or hit a movie or other historical sites nearby (like Blount Mansion or James White Fort.) Check out this exhibit before it’s gone on October 3, and also check the site for lectures and special events.