I was caught off-guard and pleasantly stoked by Eric Atkins' editorial on Chattanoogan.com last week suggesting that one of the soon-to-be surplused city buildings could be turned into a history museum. I didn't think anyone other than myself that I didn't know cared, or at least would turn their thoughts into the topic of an editorial. I believe that most of the public support a museum, but there's a "too soon" vibe from the rest. The History Center's attempt to go big next to the Aquarium resulted in its slow-moving demise and a PR nightmare. That, of course, burned many private donors and supporters. For someone who has tried to do something to move history forward in Chattanooga, it's like an elephant always resting on my back.
My history with the idea of a historic venue for Chattanooga
I started talking about the goal of a historic venue in April of 2016. I had called for "champions" in an article on Nooga.com, but no one (not a big surprise) stepped forward. At the time, one group who solicited my help to make their dated history department more up-to-date and relevant distanced themselves from me because of the "museum" aspiration. The logic behind their attitude still baffles me.
Since, I've kept an eye on surplus and underutilized properties in Chattanooga for a history space, and have made two asks from private companies, which resulted into two polite rejections... a guy has to try.
Last year I proposed that the Williams/Hardy House, adjacent to the historic Cravens House on Lookout Mountain, be turned into a small history venue focusing on Chickamauga Park history through their visitor's eyes. This would save it from the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park's plans from demolition for a new parking lot. Even with a petition of over 2,300 people, plans from the Park remain steadfast to demo the landmark in the undetermined future.
Chattanooga needs a history venue
For nearly a century, Chattanooga billed itself as scenic, historic, and industrial. The spoils left behind from industry collapse has slowly turned to a focus on innovation. Despite some very eco-unfriendly infrastructure planning in the late 50s and through the 1960s, Chattanooga's scenic appeal has remained intact or on the mend. History, on the other hand, has been like a train that keeps derailing before it even gets a few feet from the depot. Why can't public and private resources unite to develop and build a proper history venue? Why can't Chattanooga be scenic, historic and innovated again? History has been an economic cash-cow for tourism for many years, why not pour gas on that spark?
Both Nashville and Knoxville offer a full and rich historical footprint with public and private support. Since the 1930s, Chattanooga mostly has hung its historical footprint on the efforts of the U.S. government and the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park to project only a very brief and controversial period in the area's history. There is so much more history before and since to impress upon its citizens and visitors that are not Civil War related. Right now, you have to dig for information one story at a time through numerous resources. The only public history lessons come from the news, like the recent effort to remove the bust of a Confederate General from in front of the County Courthouse.
Chattanooga's history is not all gumdrops and lollipops, and that's not unusual for any U.S. city its size. I suppose some might be concerned about the narrative a history museum might tell? For instance, for years, Ed Johnson's lynching was a taboo discussion and if I were to bring it up on Facebook, there would be a spirited community dialog with several strong suggestions to sweep the topic back under the carpet. Today, the Ed Johnson Project has provided an ointment for a once sore and scared subject for many. Sometimes exposing a wound with a quick yank of a band-aid can help with its healing, even after 100+ years. I personally view the project as on the path of a successful public and private effort. And that offers hope for a successful future for a history museum.
Although there are several efforts to maintain and care for historic collections, very few are interested in building upon their collections, or ongoing research of local history topics, or have any plan to publicaly exhibit local history.
Lastly, history is disappearing. In today's digital age, more immediate history is easily lost in hard drive failures or deleted or forgotten on the cloud. Old photos and artifacts are grossly underappreciated. They often get thrown away, traded on eBay or deteriorate into dust.
A proposition: Chattanooga Museum of History and Industry
The fizzle of the Chattanooga Regional Museum and the failure-to-launch at the History Center has proven that Chattanooga should not attempt a venue with dusty shelves full of tired artifacts or a high trafficked Disney attraction. A new public/private proposition would still perform the core and much-needed activities of a history center or historical society, but also to help incubate and inspire new projects and support existing organizations much like an ArtsBuild. Along with flexible exhibit space, offering collections online drastically reduces costs. Sponsoring independent projects like River City Company successfully does with ArtSpark, Passageways, and OpenSpaces, only with historical themes, make the city into an expanded public history venue that reaches beyond the walls of a museum. Deals can be arranged with various local organizations and individuals to provide assets for display. Picnooga's, a project I founded, has an impressive collection of historical material to offer.
To fit with Chattanooga's innovation brand the physical museum space would focus on the history of the local industry. Baltimore and Seattle have had great success with industry-centered museums, and Chattanooga's industrious past is just as exciting. A donation or other arrangement from the City of Chattanooga for the soon to be surplus Purse Building (Old Water Dept. Building) at E. 10th Street and Lindsay would be an ideal location for museum operations. It has a close proximity to Bessie Smith Cultural Center and is convenient to the New Miller Plaza and Downtown Chattanooga. A focus on industry would help open corporate sponsorship opportunities to cover costs to remodel the interior and restore the building's facade in time. Built in about 1910, the property was originally home to the Purse Printing Company. According to its Hamilton County GIS record, it's 8,500 sq ft. That's about 10,000 sq ft less than the city-owned Bessie Smith Center.
Chattanooga history needs the confidence of its city government before confidence of private philanthropy will loosen up. One less missed opportunity for affordable micro-apartment living or one less high-tech startup office space with exposed brick walls and interior glass garage doors would go a long way to elevate the public's connection with its past. The value would be long-term and last beyond many of our lifetimes. It'll also ensure the preservation of a building that has its own history to tell. Even with the security of a physical space, it'll be a lot of hard work. And there are many, like myself, willing to do the labor. An opportunity downtown that wouldn't cost millions to purchase and renovate may never come again.
I challenge City Hall and local government to imagine greater for Chattanooga history. I challenge the Chamber of Commerce to endorse an industry museum concept in the Purse Building. And I challenge the Chattanooga Visitors Bureau to acknowledge the positive impact that a history and industry museum could generate.