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Tennessee State Museum Presents Tennesseans: A People’s Legacy

An exhibit which pays homage to Tennesseans whose lives and legacies have contributed to the rich and storied history of the Volunteer State has opened at the State Museum.

Tennesseans: A People’s Legacy, tells Tennessee’s story through a diverse array of personalities, whose sagas stretch across hundreds of square miles of land and embrace centuries of history. It is a story of both change and enduring traditions, of conflict and reconciliation, and of struggle and endurance. It includes a diverse patchwork of people, some virtually forgotten by history, and others who are enshrined in the national and international consciousness.

Through objects, art, and photographs, the exhibition presents the stories from a sampling of individuals, including the frontier founder a of state, the mother who endured the death of a child, the potter who gave his life for his country, and the artist whose creativity has added a new dimension to contemporary Tennessee.

The museum has one of Tennessee’s finest art collections, and several of these rarely seen works will be brought out of storage. These include African American folk art sculptor William Edmonson, internationally-acclaimed media artist Red Grooms, and Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas. Also included in the exhibition is the historic portrait of Civil War soldier Samuel Carter, painted by Samuel Shaver in 1864.

The Medal of Honor awarded to World War I hero and native Tennessean Alvin York is among the many important artifacts which will be on view. On October 1918, York fought against a superior German force that resulted in the capture of 132 prisoners and several machine guns.

Sarah Childress Polk, a native of Murfreesboro, was a remarkable woman who was quite a politician in her own right. As the wife of U.S. President James K. Polk, she served as the first lady of both Tennessee and the United States, often acting as her husband’s private secretary and political advisor. She is represented in the exhibition by the “Blue Pitcher of the Chiefs,” which dates from about 1785. The glass piece was given to Mrs. Polk by Cherokee Lee-sic Hunter in 1847, which she then donated to the Tennessee Historical Society.

An 1852 daguerreotype of Elizabeth Avery Meriwether tells the little known story of her perilous journey after being expelled from Memphis during the Civil War by General William Sherman. Following the war, Merriwether became an early activist for women’s rights in
the South.

Other exhibit highlights include:
• 1836 print by McKinney and Hall of Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith, who in 1821 completed his independent creation of a Cherokee syllabary, making reading and writing in his peoples’ native language possible.
• A stage costume from the 1930s, worn by the internationally-acclaimed performer Grace Moore, an American operatic soprano and actress in musical theater and film, nicknamed the “Tennessee Nightingale.” Her films helped to popularize opera by bringing it to a wider audience.
• Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) banner from Huntingdon from 1888. The GAR post was named for Isaac R. Hawkins, an officer in the Mexican War and who was later commissioned to serve in Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. After the war, Hawkins represented Tennessee in the United States House of Representatives for three terms.
• Quilt chest, 1940–1950, owned by Lucy Mae Smith, from a sharecropper’s family in Lauderdale County, worked as a housekeeper for the landowner. She was encouraged by her employer to learn to quilt and became a prolific and enthusiastic master of the art. Her quilts exemplify patterns favored by African American quilters in West Tennessee.
• Portrait of Roy Acuff, oil on canvas from 1940s by an unknown artist, portraying the famed country music entertainer, who reached stardom in the early 1940s and remained the leading spokesman for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville until his death in 1992.

These and many other important stories and selections from the State Museum’s remarkable permanent collection will be on view through January 16, 2011. Tennesseans: A People’s Legacy, will be exhibited in the museum’s Changing Galleries, located at Fifth and Deaderick streets in downtown Nashville. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday and is free to the public.

Image: McKinney and Hall print, Sequoyah, 1836

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