Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the natural and cultural history of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, a region that stretches from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River Museum is situated on a fifty-two-acre park in downtown Memphis. The facility was constructed in the late 1970s and opened to the public in July 1982 as part of the Mud Island river theme park. Today, the City of Memphis owns the museum and operates it under the Memphis Park Commission. The museum is comprised of eighteen galleries that showcase ten thousand years of history in the lower Mississippi River Valley and contain a permanent collection of over five thousand artifacts.
The first gallery presents a history of the origin of the Mississippi River and examines the lives of the first inhabitants to settle in the valley as well as the exploration and settlement by Europeans and the basic modes of transportation employed by both these cultures. Reproductions of Paleo and Archaic projectile points and tools as well as pottery from Mississippi Woodland cultures provide examples of life in the Lower Mississippi Valley some ten thousand years ago. Interpretive panels emphasize the migratory origins of Native Americans, the distinctly colder climate of earlier times, and prehistoric plant and animal life.
Four galleries trace the evolution of transportation on the river from the earliest canoes through the golden age of steamboats and finally to modern diesel towboats. The search for more efficient transportation and the economic impact of river transportation played a vital role in the development of trade routes and the growth of river cities. These galleries include numerous dioramas of river characters, detailed boat models, and a full-scale reproduction of the front one-third section of an 1870s steam packet boat.
The strategic importance of the Mississippi River during the Civil War and the military campaigns initiated by both Union and Confederate forces are emphasized in five galleries of the museum. The major battles that occurred on the Mississippi, as well as those on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, are highlighted. The war on the river comes alive with a simulated battle between a Confederate river battery and a scale reproduction of the front one-third section of a Union ironclad gunboat. Personal artifacts and government-issued equipment from both sides are displayed.
Five galleries trace the origins of the blues as a distinct musical form originating in the Mississippi Delta region and emphasize the importance of its effect on other types of music including jazz, ragtime, urban blues, and rock-n-roll. Charley Patten, W. C. Handy, Scott Joplin, Papa Dee, and Elvis Presley are represented with video programs that provide biographical histories.
The final gallery combines the mechanical and engineering aspects of river machinery with the environmental flora and fauna. It also contains a changing exhibit gallery that promotes various aspects of the people and culture of the Mississippi River.