Rock N Soul and History: Museums in Memphis

Genie Davis March 30, 2011 No Comments


Memphis Tennessee isn’t just about bar b q and the tourist-centered fun of Beale Street’s music emporiums. It’s not all about Elvis’ Graceland, with its myriad of tours and tourist hordes, either. While Graceland is synonymous with Memphis, there are many other historic sites and excellent museums filled with fascinating artifacts in Memphis. Some will be more appealing to small children than others; a few are restricted to ages five and up; many offer discounts to young kids, but parents will enjoy the exhibits almost as much.

Great artifacts to be found at Memphis museums

Our kids loved exploring the Rock n Soul museum and Sun Records in Memphis.

Do your kids love to dance? Sing? Just listen to music? Well, if you find yourself in Memphis and anywhere near the corner of Highway 61 – yes, the one immortalized by Bob Dylan – and equally famous Beale Street, have I got a museum for you.  The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is a music museum that depicts the tale of the music pioneers of Memphis. They weren’t just musical innovators, they had to overcome racial bias and economic hardship in order to shape the music that ended up shaping our musical and cultural world. It’s a riveting story presented in interactive displays here.

Now all of that might be too much for the smallest children to understand, but what they will get easily is an enjoyable listen and look at Memphis music, beginning with the songs created by share croppers and field hands in the depression years of the 1930′s, moving on to the Beale Street blues movement of the 1940′s, the rockabilly of Sun Records and Sam Phillips in the 1950′s, and soul music of the 60′s and 70′s made popular by another Memphis local recording company, Stax. The museum has an MP3 audio tour for those old enough to use it, but without the tour running, the museum is still fun and informative. There are three separate media programs running, and a multitude of famous instruments and costumes in the galleries.

The museum started as a Smithsonian Research project, and built up its exhibition space to include information and artifacts about the music. It’s free for kids under age five, and a half price bargain for kids up to age 12. We spent over two hours studying the exhibits and listening to the music – over a hundred songs are available on that audio tour – we held the headphones up to the ears of our littlest listeners to sample.

Right across the street is the Gibson Guitar Factory. Admission is limited here to those over the age of five, but if your little ones fit in that age range, they’ll love seeing luthiers – that’s guitar craftsmen – at work. This interesting forty-five minute tour of Gibson’s factory includes the opportunity to see guitars literally created, and the involved steps that include binding, neck-fitting, painting, buffing, and tuning. There’s also some painlessly imparted history about Gibson’s hundred year guitar making and future musical plans.

Also restricted to age five and up is Sun Studios; which offers a a great live tour of this historic sound studio. The studio isn’t walkable from Beale Street, but it’s an easy car ride or it can be reached via a free shuttle from the Rock n Soul Museum. Children under age eleven are free. The tour takes about an hour, and includes the chance to hold the microphone Elvis used when recording here. The studio lays claim to the title of “the birthplace of rock and roll,” having created a single called Rocket 88 there in 1951 – apparently the first rock and roll release.

There’s no age restrictions and free admission for kids under nine years at another illustrious musical hot spot: The Stax Museum of American Soul Music. With over two thousand exhibits and several large recreations, this museum is worth a full afternoon’s exploration. Stax began as a small record store inside a movie theater, and it grew up to be one of the largest and most significant recording studios, starting the careers of now famous musicians from Issac Hayes to Ike and Tina Turner.

The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis

Although not an "upbeat" destination, our children learned a great deal at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

Your kids will love listening to the music and looking at the unique artifacts and film and media exhibits, many of them interactive. As the only soul museum in the world, the Stax museum features work from other recording companies and their artists as well, and begins the exploration of soul’s musical roots with an awesome gospel exhibit set inside an actual church. Our kids really enjoyed seeing Isaac Hayes’ niftily restored, Cadillac El Dorado with its own television, refrigerator, and fourteen karat gold trim. And they also enjoyed the enormous “Hall of Records,” displaying over eight hundred singles and three hundred plus albums.

A more serious take on Memphis history is on view at the National Civil Rights Museum, located at and built up around the Lorraine Motel, the site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. While this might seem a little heavy for toddler viewing, all ages in our family were interested and involved in the exhibits, and the older kids found the depiction of the American civil rights movement and it’s legacy to be inspirational and moving. Under age three admission is free. Dr. King’s assassination is only one aspect of the absorbing history of the civil rights movement depicted here.

The Children’s Museum of Memphis is a wonderful and large exhibition space which kids from babes in arms up to age ten will greatly enjoy. The Going Places exhibit was particularly wonderful, with its focus on flight. There was a flight simulator, a look inside an air traffic control tower, a hot air balloon, and even an airplane cockpit. Saving natural resources and conservation through everyday living is the focus as it engages visitors in the life cycle of a tree and the important role that a tree plays in the Tree House exhibit that explored Earth’s environment. Displays ranged from ecosystems, to tree-created products, all displayed in a forest- like setting. The littlest members of our party loved interacting with the interactive Grandma Willow.

Whatever museum you decide to explore, your family will discover great Memphis memories among the exhibits.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling.

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