The museums of Mississippi

Date published: 19 Jul 18

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What’s on your list of places to visit in the USA? New York, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, Florida? I’m willing to bet that Mississippi probably isn’t on there. But perhaps it should be. As well as being a fascinating region full of cultural diversity, it has a rich and, at times, complicated cultural and political heritage that is inextricably linked to the history and development of the United States itself. And in these days of Trump’s America, it’s fitting to see a state bravely confront its past and holds its hands up to its wrongdoings as Mississippi is about slavery and racial segregation. It should act as a stern warning of what can happen when fear, ignorance and hatred are allowed to influence and even define government policy.

Mississippi today is emerging as a changed and vibrant new state, well worthy of consideration by those travellers seeking something different from their jaunt across the pond. So where should you go to grab the best slice of Mississippi pie and learn about its chequered past and hope-filled future? I recently toured the state and found that its museums offer an excellent way to jump in and learn all about the history of this state and its people, as well as sampling some of that fine old southern hospitality.

Diana Ross costumes at Grammy MuseumMississippi is officially the poorest state in the union but, if wealth was measured in musical talent, then it would probably be the richest. The list of stars to have hailed from here is spectacular: from Elvis to BB King, from John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner to Britney Spears. In fact, more GRAMMY award winners have hailed from Mississippi than any other state — a fact celebrated at the GRAMMY Museum, Cleveland (sister museum to the one in LA) in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Here, as well as being able to see some of the actual dresses worn by award-winners such as Lady Gaga and Beyonce, there are a whole host of interactive displays and innovative exhibits that let you do everything from cutting your own record in a mini-recording studio to singing on stage with Diana Ross and The Supremes.

Staying with the musical theme, Mississippian B.B. King was known as 'The King of the Blues' — the initials of his stage name actually stand for ‘Blues Boy’. The B.B. King Museum in Indianola, where he was raised and BB King Museumworked as a sharecropper in the cotton industry before becoming one of the world’s most famous musicians, not only traces his story but that of Mississippi. As well as learning why he called his Gibson guitar ‘Lucille’ (I won’t spoil the surprise but, suffice to say, in true Southern style it involves a fight in a bar over a woman!), you can get a feel for how almost impossibly difficult it was for a black musician to make it so big in the prevailing conditions of racial segregation. Despite the struggle, he never seemed to had made any enemies on his way up, being genuinely respected for his gentle demeanour and good manners. According to one of the museum guides who knew BB, even at the pinnacle of his success when he could fill stadiums, he would always seek out the owner of the venue after his show and, shaking them warmly by the hand, thank them for letting him and his band play there, saying “me and the boys appreciate the work”.

Elvis birthplace museumFrom the King of the Blues to simply The King: Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo which is just a ninety-minute drive from his final resting place, Graceland. Even today, the town seems to function as a living shrine to what many people consider to be the greatest entertainer ever. Within walking distance of each other you can find the ramshackle two-roomed house that Elvis was born in, the church where he discovered his love of gospel music as he sang hymns, as well as The Elvis Presley Birthplace museum. Bizarrely, there’s even a life size recreation of the outside toilet he used as a toddler! Downtown, you can visit the Tupelo Hardware store where his mother Gladys bought him his first guitar — an ‘X’ marks the spot in front of the counter where Elvis stood and received the instrument on his 11th birthday. The story goes that he actually wanted a gun (which the store also sells) but his mother refused to give him such a violent present and so, armed with his guitar, his musical career took shape and the rest, as they, is history.

Tupelo hardware store (Elvis's first guitar)Whilst you’re in Tupelo, you might want to swing by The Tupelo Automobile Museum which claims to officially be the number one tourist attraction in the state of Mississippi. Owned by a local media mogul, the late Frank Spain, the museum houses his private collection of over 150 antique and exotic cars including Liberace’s Corvette, complete with a gold candelabra rising out of the boot!

After celebrating the positive side of Mississippi, fairness dictates that the darker side of its past be confronted, and that is exactly the aim of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum which, having opened only last Christmas along with its twin, the Museum of Mississippi History, is the newest museum in the state capital of Jackson. It deals with some fairly incendiary topics including slavery and the struggle by black Mississippians for equality and freedom from oppression at the hands of the government, the police and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. This museum shines a light on some shameful times in Mississippi such as the alleged collusion of the police in the assassination of African American civil rights activist Medgar Evers at the hands of white supremacists in 1963. Thankfully, times have changed. Whilst I was visiting the museum I witnessed a young black woman clad in gown and mortarboard hat, clearly having come straight from her graduation ceremony, beaming with pride as she showed her parents around the exhibits. Triple Elvis by Warhol at Mississippi Art MuseumShe was stopped by an elderly black woman who, with tears in her eyes, told her how proud she was, having lived through all the years of racial segregation, that an African American woman could now have a chance at a proper education and a life on equal terms with white America.

Not far away is the Mississippi Museum of Art which houses over 5,500 exhibits from local and national artists such as Georgia O’Keefe and Eudora Welty, as well as one of Andy Warhol’s renditions of that most famous of Mississippians, Elvis Presley. Finally, a short drive to the east lies the state’s latest cultural opening, the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience (or MAX for short). This impressive new building in the centre of Meridian showcases the plethora of talent that has come out of this part of the United States, from writers such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams to the musicians that have been mentioned above. It will also act as a cultural and education venue for the next generation of Mississippians to intend to put their mark on their world.Tennessee Williams's home At the opening party, I asked Joe Norwood, a local councillor who is on the board of the MAX, if he thinks there is a connection between Mississippi being the poorest state and the richness of artistic talent that emanates from it. He clearly sees a link. describing a feeling of wanting to escape abject poverty and hardship through hard work and achievement. As he puts it, “Mississippi people have a history of making a whole lot out of very little”.

More information

America As You Like It offer a 7-night holiday to Mississippi from £1,315 per person including return flights from London to Jackson on United Airlines, car hire, 2 nights at the Westin Jackson, 2 nights at the Alluvian Greenwood, 1 night at the Hilton Garden Inn Tupelo, 1 night at the Hampton Inn Oxford and 1 night at the Hilton Garden Inn Meridian. Price based on 2 people sharing. For more information contact 020 8742 8299, [email protected] or visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com

For more information on Mississippi, go to visitmississippi.org or deep-south-usa.com

For tours of Mississippi and the American South, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cosmos


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