Take a trip to these Memphis museums for the most comprehensive experience exploring the city’s history, culture and musical landscape.
National Civil Rights Museum
Highlighting the struggles that came with fighting for equality, the National Civil Rights Museum features more than 260 artifacts, interactive media and external listening posts that take visitors through five centuries of history, focusing on the effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws on African-Americans.
The exhibits at the museum cover iconic events including the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the student sit-ins of the 1960s. Three-dimensional figures are positioned within the exhibits to recreate these events in a way that brings them to life. The stories of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are also featured, ensuring that their legacies and tales of courage are understood today.
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Founded in 1916, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is the oldest and largest art museum in Tennessee. Both indoor and outdoor exhibits are on display at the museum, which houses 29 galleries and over 7,000 works of art. There’s a research library, art classrooms, a print study room and an auditorium. The museum also features Inside Art, which is Tennessee’s only family gallery dedicated to visual literacy.
Outside the museum, visitors will find a bronze fountain and three marble sculptures of the seasons, as well as a bronze birdbath and lions along the west staircase. Some of these works were commissioned by the museum and others were gifted or donated. Speaking of donations, admission to the museum on Wednesdays is by donation only: guests decide what to pay.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Where Stax Records once stood, now stands the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. In 1976, Stax Recrods went bankrupt and was sold to Southside Church of God in Christ. It was briefly used as a soup kitchen, but was torn down in 1989 due to deteriorating conditions. In 2001, construction began on the Stax Museum, as well as the adjacent Stax Music Academy. The museum, which is a replica of the Stax recording studio, opened in 2003.
The museum has more than 2,000 videos, photographs, stage costumes, interactive exhibits and original instruments that were used to record hit songs at Stax in its heyday. The Stax Music Academy mentors at-risk youth through music education and performance opportunities. It is also where the Soulsville Charter School is located.
National Ornamental Metal Museum
Located on 3.2 acres overlooking the Mississippi River, the National Ornamental Metal Museum opened in 1979. It is the only institution in the United States devoted exclusively to the advancement of the art and craft of fine metalwork. For almost 30 years, it was led by James Wallace, who was a blacksmith, artist, curator, plumber and a mechanic. Much of the success of the museum can be attributed to Wallace’s dedication. In 2007, he retired from the museum to focus on his own projects.
The museum has a collection of over 3,000 metal objects, some dating back to the Renaissance. There is also a library and sculpture garden on the property, in addition to a blacksmith shop where classes and demonstrations take place throughout the year.
Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
When it opened in 2000, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum was the first exhibition ever created by the Smithsonian Institution with another museum. It was developed in partnership with the National Museum of American History (NMAH) to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution. The focus of the museum is to tell the stories of musicians who overcame racial and socioeconomic barriers to create influential music.
The museum became part of the FedEx Forum, which is Memphis’s premier sports and entertainment venue, in 2004. Visitors can enjoy a digital audio tour that offers a comprehensive musical experience covering the history of Sun, Stax and Hi Records, as well as the Memphis music scene from the 1930s through to the present. Guests can take the tour at their own pace, and explore seven galleries, more than 30 instruments and over 300 minutes of fascinating information.
Children’s Museum of Memphis
Known as ‘the place where play is learning’, the Children’s Museum of Memphis is located in the former National Guard Armory that existed from the early 1940s. It offers hands-on exhibits and programs that create memorable learning experiences for children. Inside, there is an area for toddlers, an art studio, a firehouse and an indoor campground. Outside exhibits include the H2Oh! Splash Park and Bankshot Basketball.
Catering for children from the ages of 1 to 12, the museum is a place where kids can have fun learning, and where parents can learn how to have fun.
After the White House, Graceland is the second most-visited house in the United States. The former home of Elvis Presley, Graceland mansion offers an interactive iPad tour hosted by actor John Stamos. The tour includes the living room, kitchen, TV room, pool room and the famous Jungle Room. The raquetball building was recently restored to its 1977 condition, and visitors can see Elvis’s keys to Graceland in the newly updated trophy building.
Outside the mansion is the Meditation Garden, where Elvis and his family are buried. It was designed and built by architect Bernard Grenadier, and was used by Elvis when he was alive as a space to reflect on difficult situations.
The Cotton Museum
Memphis is the largest spot-cotton market in the world, and the Cotton Row district that surrounds The Cotton Museum was once the center of the worldwide cotton trade. The museum, which opened in 2006, offers a self-guided tour of Cotton Row, which highlights the landmarks and thriving cotton industry that once existed in Memphis. The main exhibit of the museum is located on the historic trade floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange, where cotton traders once stood. It tells the story of ‘King Cotton’ and features original films, oral histories and artifacts.
The Exploration Hall wing on the museum takes visitors through the history of cotton production using hands-on exhibits that engage them with games and activities. Visitors will learn how technology in the cotton industry has changed since the 1940s, and how it has altered life in the American south.