If your holiday travels take you through a state’s capital city, be sure to check out its state history museum, which is usually free and has fun and interactive educational activities for all ages. I’ve reviewed the excellent North Carolina Museum of History and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on the blog, and on a recent trip through Nashville, I was able to visit the Tennessee State Museum.
The Tennessee State Museum is located in Nashville’s Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, which extends out from the State Capitol building. We visited Nashville in summer of 2021, and when I saw a favorite blogger, Jessica Turner at The Mom Creative, post about the museum on her social media, I knew I had to visit it!
It was well worth the time to visit. It’s free so any amount of time you can give it is great. The main exhibit, the Tennessee Time Tunnel, is located upstairs and takes you through the state’s centuries of history. Be sure to pick up your free Passport to Tennessee History at the front desk.
The first part of the exhibit explores the natural and prehistoric history of the land. Your kids will be fascinated by the cool fossils and artifacts dating back thousands of years!
The second part of the exhibit, Forging a Nation, details how the state was settled by Europeans, becoming an official state in 1796. The exhibit does a good job of exploring how the many different groups, from the Native Americans to the enslaved peoples to the colonial men and women, were affected by the westward expansion and American Revolution.
There are fun hands-on activities for children throughout the exhibit.
I was especially interested in the exhibit about the Battle of Kings Mountain which occurred in my hometown. The museum displays doomed British Major Patrick Ferguson’s personal belongings and the rifle that fired the fatal shot into him.
Andrew Jackson looms as a large historical figure in Tennessee history so it’s no surprise to see him discussed here. From his defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 to his political career, the museum has many personal artifacts and items to give you a better understanding of this controversial president in American history.
You’ll also learn more about other famous Tennesseans such as James K. Polk and Davy Crockett.
I enjoyed seeing the dresses and other clothing on display.
Your children will be fascinated by the printing press!
The next section of the exhibit is about Tennessee during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The exhibits here are vast and extensive. I could have spent hours reading each and every artifact placard.
Some of the most important battles of the Civil War were fought in Tennessee, including Shiloh, Nashville, Franklin, and Chickamauga. Check out this map from Civil War Trails to see how many battles were fought in this state.
The exhibit does a good job at highlighting lesser known stories from women and the enslaved to tell the complete history of this time period.
The next exhibit, Change and Challenge, details Tennessee’s part in the social, political, and labor changes of the late 19th and early 20th century. Tennessee was the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th amendment in 1920 (by one vote!) which made women’s suffrage legal in the US. There are many artifacts here about that vote (be sure to also visit the women’s suffrage monument at nearby Centennial Park and Hermitage Hotel where more artifacts are located). The museum also has an online exhibit dedicated to women’s suffrage.
I loved seeing all of the early 20th century dresses and home appliances displayed.
World War I and II feature prominently here as well. Your kids will like seeing the different uniforms!
The last exhibit takes you from 1946 – the present, focusing on the the Civil Rights era and the music industry that is so important to the state.
Leave plenty of time to explore these galleries. We visited with only one hour until closing, so we had to rush through the last two galleries. There is a lot to see!
Before leaving, make sure your child visits the Children’s Gallery on the first floor. It was closed while we were there but hopefully it will be open on your visit. Check out the special children’s portal to encourage your child to learn more about Tennessee history before or after your visit!
There are also several temporary exhibits that we didn’t have time to visit. I was especially interested in the Ratified! exhibit. Next time!
The new Tennessee State Museum is one that should be on your list to visit while in Nashville, especially this year as it celebrates its 225th birthday. It’s a fun and educational way to learn about the state’s long history.
- Cost: Free
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 1.5-2 hours
- Gift shop located onsite
- Transportation: The museum is located in downtown Nashville and has a large, free parking lot.
- Dining options: The extensive Nashville Farmers’ Market is located next door and has over 20 locally owned restaurants or food shops. Great options for all ages! If you want a show with your meal, check out the family-friendly Puckett’s Grocery (about a 10 minute drive).
- Nearby hotels: We stayed at the historic Hermitage Hotel, and it was fantastic and luxurious. Other more budget-friendly options are the Sheraton and Renaissance Nashville Hotel (with children, avoid hotels closer to Broadway).
- Nearby attractions include: Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, Tennessee State Capitol and grounds (includes President James and Sarah Polk’s tomb), Military Branch of the Tennessee State Museum, and Country Music Hall of Fame
Books to Read:
All links embedded in photos are Amazon affiliate links.
Hidden History of Civil War Tennessee
AMERICAN LION: Andrew Jackson in the White House
This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality
What’s Great About Tennessee?
Who Was Andrew Jackson?
Who Was Davy Crockett?
Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968
Good Night Tennessee
Good Night Nashville
V is for Volunteer: A Tennessee Alphabet