The Tennessee State Museum is devoted to collecting, preserving, and interpreting objects related to the history and culture of Tennessee. These items generally are conserved and displayed at the museum’s main facility at the James K. Polk Center in downtown Nashville.
The general assembly adopted a resolution accepting in trust the collections of the Tennessee Historical Society in 1927. This collection contained over ten thousand artifacts, including Davy Crockett’s powder horn, Andrew Jackson’s top hat, and swords and rifles from the battle of Kings Mountain. Originally housed at the War Memorial Building, the Tennessee State Museum was founded in 1937 for the purpose of bringing together various state-owned collections.
Individuals and groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Department of Conservation, the Game and Fish Commission, and veterans of the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II loaned or donated items as well, greatly expanding the museum’s collection. By the 1970s it had become evident that a larger facility was needed. In 1981 the State Museum opened its main facility in the James K. Polk Center. The War Memorial Building then became the Military Branch of the State Museum, with new exhibits installed that interpret America’s involvement in foreign wars from the Spanish-American War to World War II, highlighting the contributions made by Tennesseans. Among the objects on display are the Medal of Honor awarded to Alvin C. York and a full-scale replica of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The current collection includes almost ninety thousand artifacts, many relating to famous Tennessee personalities such as James K. Polk, Elvis Presley, Alex Haley, and Cordell Hull. Within its excellent collection are Tennessee-made paintings, silver, ceramics, textiles, furniture, and firearms. Through its permanent interpretive exhibits, the museum traces the state’s history from the Paleoindian era through the early twentieth century. Six distinct eras of Tennessee’s history are represented in the exhibits: First Tennesseans, Frontier, Age of Jackson, Antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction, and The New South. The museum’s temporary exhibits have included “Red Grooms: A Retrospective,” “Magna Carta: Liberty Under The Law,” and “A People at War: Americans in World War II.”
The State Museum also provides curatorial oversight and tours of the State Capitol, manages the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, and loans objects to other sites and museums across the state. The Tennessee State Museum Foundation, a public, nonprofit organization, supports the State Museum.