Get to Know Clarksville through the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center

Written by Meghan Gattignolo, Visitor Services Coordinator

Clarksville has no shortage of attractions and activities for families to enjoy on any given afternoon. One of the more unique options is the local multi-interest Museum located in a historic U.S. Post Office and Customs House building from 1898 in downtown Clarksville, the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center. The distinctly-shaped building has had several owners since 1898, but in 1984 the building become a cultural and historical bastion for Clarksville and Montgomery County.

Construction of the Museum in 1898 when it was the U.S. Post Office and Customs House.

The Museum in 1898 when it was the U.S. Post Office and Customs House.

For more than three decades, the Museum has steadily expanded its exhibits, square footage and the collections. An expansion in 1996 more than doubled space for exhibits, events and rentals. A favorite for families with young children – the Bubble Cave, located in the Explorers’ Landing hands-on exhibit area – is a core draw for repeat visitors. The Kiwanis Family Art Studio provides a bright and welcoming place for families to get creative together. The most recent addition to the Museum, the Grand Illumination, added a pop of color to the unique shape of the Museum roof. Nighttime passers-by have the opportunity to see the Museum lit up in bright colors. These features are just part of what makes the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center a special part of the Clarksville landscape. 

Nighttime scene of the Customs House Museum with an illuminated roofline of emerald green.

The Museum lit-up emerald green for the Grand Illumination.

Museum with a Side of Party

Every year, the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center hosts some extravagant events – usually as fundraisers to benefit the educational programming, exhibits and collections of the Museum. For a great excuse to get dressed-up and be out in the town, look no further than your local Museum! Museum members are invited to free receptions throughout the year to celebrate new exhibits that are often attended by featured artists. The beginning of the year always starts with Champagne & Chocolate, a beautiful soiree usually hosted around Valentine’s Day, making it a ready-made date night full of champagne, sweets and hors d’oeuvres.

Museum guests dance in front of a live band in the Crouch Gallery during Champagne & Chocolate.

A couple dances to live musical accompaniment
at Champagne and Chocolate.

Flying High marks the Museum’s summer birthday and has been the premier annual fundraising event since 1984. The event is a celebration of community support and the night’s entertainment comes from live and silent auctions, a formal dinner, live music and hobnobbing with a variety of interesting figures from the Clarksville community. Near the end of the calendar year, look forward to Noel Night! During the first Thursday night in December, Seasons: The Museum Store hosts a cheery evening filled with holiday-inspired family fun. A family craft, snacks, special sales in the store, free gift-wrapping and even a visit from Santa Claus help make Noel Night a very special night indeed!

Memberships for the Frequent Visitors

For frequent visitors of the Museum, annual memberships provide the opportunity to support the Museum while saving some money. There are a variety of membership options that cover a wide range of benefits. The Solo Membership will get you and a guest unlimited visits for a whole year. Never miss another intriguing art exhibit, and be the first to hear about new Museum-hosted events and programs.

The Duo/Family Membership is popular amongst visitors with children, and active-duty military get a discounted rate with the Active Military Membership. Specific membership levels also offer access to reciprocal programs that will get you admission and discounts at museums around the United States. A Museum Member has more opportunities to be directly involved in contributing to the growth of the Museum including invitations to member-exclusive events, discounts on rentals, discounts in Seasons: The Museum Store and not to mention unlimited visits to the Museum all year long!

Artifacts on display in the Becoming Clarksville exhibit.

The Becoming Clarksville exhibit tells the story of Clarksville.

Artistic & Historical Exhibitions

Museums excel at preserving history, and the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center is no exception. Many permanent exhibits cater to the history-hungry visitor. The Challenges & Champions Sports Gallery is home to significant players in the sports field who are from Clarksville, or have a significant connection to the area. Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph and race car driver Jeff Purvis are spotlighted in this exhibit. Heritage Hall highlights who Clarksville and Montgomery County are named for, along with inventions, famous figures, world events and natural disasters that have shaped the history of Clarksville.

Wilma Rudolph Olympic Champion exhibit located in the Challenges & Champions gallery.

The centerpiece of the Wilma Rudolph exhibit, found in the Challenges and Champions Sports Gallery.

Of course, the Museum caters to the art-lovers, too! Short-term art exhibits rotate throughout multiple galleries in the Museum. The artists exhibited have been local, though the museum has also hosted shows of significant artists on the national stage. Annually, the Tennessee Watercolor Society juried show and Women Painting Women show are exciting exhibits members love. Occasionally, the exhibits department will host artist demonstrations and gallery talks. The Museum is proud to house one of the largest collections in the southeast of the Edward Marshall Boehm porcelain sculptures, a prolific American sculptor whose work is preserved throughout the world in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the White House and even Buckingham Palace. 

A Collection Worth Seeing

The Museum curates a collection of more than 21,000 artifacts. Photographs, painted portraits, toys, documents, currency, clothes, instruments, quilts and household objects weave together the 236-year story of Clarksville and Montgomery County.  The majority of the Museum’s collection is kept in storage, but items are rotated out for exhibits and many objects in the collection are available for view on our website. Several favorite gems can usually be found on exhibit, though.

Mother and son stand in Orgain Gallery viewing an exhibit. Mother is pointing to a drawing on the wall.

Guests enjoy some of the paintings on display at the Museum.

The original spire from the 1898 Post Office & Customs House building, twisted and mangled by the 1999 F3 tornado that devastated downtown Clarksville is now part of the Becoming Clarksville exhibit, as is the maquette for the new Tennessee Triumph statue at Public Square to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. The Civil War-era portrait of two small children – Irma and James Porter – who died during the measles epidemic while Clarksville was under Union occupation, is often on exhibit and is a favorite of Museum staff. A 1920s-era fire engine used in Montgomery County has been part of the Museum’s collection for a long time. Get a feel for what life was like in 1840s Montgomery County inside the Powers Log Home, full of contemporary household items. Collection items often come directly as donations from long-time local residents, so the pieces of Clarksville history the Museum has been entrusted with usually come with the integral stories attached. In this way, the Museum depends on local residents to help tell Clarksville’s story. 

All Aboard the (Model) Trains!

Two Museum guests watch the model trains glide by in the Huff & Puff Express Model Trains exhibit.

Huff & Puff Express enthralls a pair of Museum visitors.

A Sunday afternoon in Clarksville is not complete without a trip to see the Huff & Puff Express Model Trains. The model trains and layout are run and maintained by a volunteer train crew who have collaborated with the Museum since the exhibit’s inception. Watch five or six individual trains run simultaneously through a beautiful landscape, inspired in part by real places in Clarksville, with some fun and fantasy thrown in. Buttons on the visitor side make it possible to interact directly with the exhibit. What makes it even more exciting is the train crew make changes to the buildings and figures seasonally, so there is always a new experience for those who are regular train exhibit visitors. During the holiday season, the traditional Snowflake Special train makes its rounds through a snow-covered backdrop, flying past toy shops, ice skaters and hot cocoa-drinkers.

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