the joyful traveller

Two Tennessee Museums – Celebrating An American Musical Master

The ride between Nashville and Memphis is just over 3 hours, and if you go the fastest route, I-40, it’s uneventful.  On a recent visit to Tennessee, two museums stood out as the ones to visit: Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, and the Frist Museum of Fine Art on Broadway, off of Nashville’s tourist track.  The choice of Graceland was easy, he was a big part of my youth – pretty much every music fan’s youth.  In fact, John Lennon once said “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”  And while The Frist Art Museum in Nashville cannot compare to the icon that Graceland has become, it has received acclaim for its digital art collection, with new art coming in every two months or so, and so was the museum of choice.

Graceland

“I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennesee.  I’m going to Graceland,” sang Paul Simon in his chart-topping LP from 1986.  Since then, I was hoping to say the same thing.  The mansion itself could never resemble the image I created in my head over the years since his death in 1977, something like the White House, or Versailles.  The shuttle bus from the visitor center brings us to the modest house with rooms no larger than those in a fancy Long Island bilevel.  What it does have however, is memories and artifacts, awards, paintings, furniture, school report cards, kitchen plates, the infamous jungle room and on and on. The rooms are roped off, they remain as they were, and it feels as if the family had just been sitting there but took off when they heard footsteps coming.  The upstairs, of course, where Elvis died, is closed to the public.  We see Gladys and Vernon’s first floor bedroom, Lisa Marie’s crib, her baby clothes, Elvis’ wallet, jewelry.  No stone, or bauble, was left unturned. 

Ipads are provided for visitors to scroll through and with the accompanying headphones can listen as John Stamos narrates the tour, tells us where to look at and why it’s memorable. He shares that his name “Jessie” from the Full House TV show was in tribute to Elvis’ twin who died at birth.  The mansion tour takes about 2 hours, but once out the back door, there are the offices for Elvis’ staff, the pastures where he and his family rode horses, the pool, and the graves, and that can take another hour.  What is evident is that Elvis was a family man, first and foremost, and secondly, that he had more money than he knew what to do with. Probably the most stirring area was the racquetball court which featured a den with a piano.  Stamos explains that on Elvis’ last day, he and his friends were in the den, enjoying one last day before a major tour was to begin, Elvis sat at the piano and performed two songs, one of them “Unchained Melody” before calling it a night and headed up to bed. That was his last public appearance.

As the shuttle bus returns guests to the visitors’ center, there’s easily another 3 hours of sightseeing through the immense warehouses that contain the King’s jumpsuits, gold records, Cadillacs, sports cars, US Army gear, and on and on.  It’s overwhelming to say the least, because his every move was videotaped, recorded, and photographed, since he was barely out of his teens.  We remember meeting him on the Ed Sullivan show, then his stint in the Army, his marriage, fatherhood, devotion to parents, and comeback after his Hollywood contracts were fulfilled. He died when he was only 42, but there was a lot to show in that short life.  

One can only wonder how long Graceland will continue to be one of the top tourist destinations in the US, maybe even the world.  The baby boomer generation certainly grew up on Elvis Presley music, but what happens ten years from now?  With HBO’s recent documentary “The Searcher,” that focuses on Elvis’ personal side, fans hungry for more inside information should be satisfied.  And, like any complicated artist who died too soon, the public’s fascination and desire for any new information, will most probably keep the flame burning bright, just like the gas lit flame that burns alongside Elvis and his parents in the rear of the backyard.  Before leaving, it’s worth a visit to Gladys’ Diner for an order of grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich.  Or maybe not.

The Frist Museum of Art

This summer, the Frist Museum of Art is offering the “Chaos and Awe” exhibit which are “paintings by an international array of artists that induce sensations of disturbance, curiosity, and expansiveness.”  The exhibit took up the entire main floor of the former post office building, itself anarchitectural and historic work of art. On one side of the upper floor, there was a photo exhibit chronicling the civil rights issue as reported in the Nashville Press from 1957 through 1968. And, as this year marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, this was a timely reminder of where we’ve come, and the work that still needs to be done.  On the other side of the second floor was the Martin ArtQuest Gallery where all ages can come together and reflect on what was seen on the museum tour.  Guests can make a painting and create a collage.

The first of two standout experiences of the Chaos and Awe exhibit was “Winchester,” a digital art piece by Jeremy Blake that played in one of the gallery rooms and depicted the Winchester House in California, the mansion of Sarah Winchester, widow of the inventor of the repeating rifle,William Winchester.In the loop, the artist is expressing the haunted history of the house, and Sarah’s belief that she was cursedby the spirits of all the loss of life with the emergence of the rifle.  We see the exterior of the house dissolve in a ghostly fashion.  It runs about 18 minutes, is hypnotic, and raises the disturbing truth of so much loss of the Native Americans in the 18th century. 

The second exhibit of note is the virtual reality art piece by Rachel Ross who painted scenes from her life, including areas around her apartment, family home, even kitchen appliances. With the glasses in place, we see the images float all about us, above and below.  It’s a treat for the mind, and though for some it can be a disorienting experience, guests are in a chair and supervised by a museum staffer.  Two guests at a time can enjoy the show, entitled “I Came and Went as A Ghost Hand,”and it provides a glimpse into how we will inevitably experience art in the future. 

It’s fair to say that one needs a good 3 to 4 hours to take in the museum, visit the gift shop, grab a coffee and sit in the outdoor garden area. 

For more information on The Frist

For more information on Graceland

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