Tennessee State Museum setting up advisory group following criticism of black history exhibits

By LEE JOHNSON | Nashville Voice

The Tennessee State Museum is setting up an advisory group following criticism of its presentation of black history, said a museum official.

Since it opened in October, the museum, which has 137,000 square feet of exhibition space, has received complaints about its slavery exhibits and the interpretation of that time period. One complaint is that the slavery section is small, segregated, and doesn’t include enough about black women.

“We did get some criticism of the interpretation, and the design of the exhibitions,” said Joe Pagetta, the museum’s communications director. “But we are putting together an advisory group to address those concerns. We want to get it right, we absolutely do.”

One person who has been asked to be part of the advisory group is Dr. Learotha Williams, an associate professor of history at Tennessee State University and founder of the North Nashville Heritage Project, an initiative to preserve and share stories of black history in North Nashville.

Williams recently gave a lecture at the museum and talked about Nashville’s early history and the impact of blacks in shaping the city. Following the lecture, he discussed the changes he would like to see at the museum.

“There needs to be a broader, more up-to-date presentation and analysis of Tennessee history, particularly African-American,” said Williams, who has asked that some of his students be part of the advisory group. “Black folks … were here from the beginning, and not just passive participants. And we helped to shape Nashville as you see it today.”

Williams said he would also like to see more about African-American contributions in other areas, like music.

“Our beats, our rhythms, are at the heart of everything that makes us nod our head or tap our feet, but you don’t really see that,” he said.

Tennessee Rep. Harold Love, Jr., whose district borders the museum, agreed.

“One of the things that we need to be always aware of when we have state museums is the intentional effort to represent the entire state,” Love said. “I know we can’t encapsulate everything, but there should be an intentional effort to make sure that we have representation from all across the state of Tennessee, and from all ethnicities, races and nationalities.”

Pagetta said the museum wants to “encompass the entire state,” and that it welcomes feedback from the advisory group, which is still being assembled. He didn’t say exactly when it would be complete, but he reiterated that the museum has heard the critics.

“This has been a learning curve for us these last three months,” Pagetta said. ”We want to make sure that interpretation is accurate, it’s contemporary.”

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