By Meghan E. Gattignolo
Have you visited the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center yet?
If I had a penny for every time someone said to me, “I didn’t know Clarksville had a museum” with shock and surprise when I suggested they visit, I would…
Well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d have a lot of pennies.
Maybe due to Clarksville’s ever-growing population or the expanding number of things to do locally, the Customs House Museum remains a hidden gem in some circles. Still, the 125-year-old building that has housed the Museum for almost 40 years is considered the most photographed building in Clarksville and serves as the city’s most recognizable landmark. However, it is what’s inside that counts! Have you visited the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center? If not, I’ll give you some good reasons to check it out today.
Award-Winning Hands-On Children’s Exhibits
The Museum’s previous Curator of Education, Sue Lewis, enjoyed the title of longest-running staff member until she retired last December. The only individual to have worked under every one of the Museum’s five executive directors, Sue remains a legend. For 33 years, Sue oversaw all education programming and the upkeep of the permanent hands-on children’s exhibits. If you were a child in the 1990s or early 2000s, you may have enjoyed playing with the old toys in Aunt Alice’s Attic, an area maintained by Ms. Sue.
During her tenure, Sue was instrumental in creating and designing the Family Art Studio. She used her background as a teacher to influence the art studio’s features and programming.
Sue’s swan song was the renovation of Explorers Landing on the Museum’s Lower Level. Long existing as a glorified playroom with exhibits curated by Sue over the years, she envisioned the space becoming an exhibit itself. Sue led the project to renovate Explorers Landing into its current iteration, which opened to the public in January 2022.Exploring Our Town: An Adventure for All Ages was recognized by both the Southeastern Museums Conference and the Tennessee Association of Museums, where it received recognition for excellence as a permanent exhibit.
Best Model Trains Around
Since its early years, the Museum has hosted a model train exhibit maintained and run solely by a group of volunteer train enthusiasts. The exhibit, known as the F&M Bank Huff & Puff Express, has gained an impressive reputation over the years, and is still one of the primary reasons many people visit the Museum. It is one of the largest model railroad layouts of its kind in the region, and every year, the model trains bring seasonal excitement with changing interactive props. The cheery Snowflake Special heralds the coming holidays and a visit to the trains during Noel Night – a free holiday-themed event held the first Thursday of December – has become a favorite tradition.
Exhibits that Will Surprise You
You might think you have to drive to the Frist in Nashville for art, but great exhibits are closer than you think. Terri Jordan, the Curator of Exhibits (and an established artist herself), has connections with artists and other art museums across the country. This has made it possible to bring some big names through the Customs House Museum’s galleries. The Museum has featured exhibits with nationally recognized artists like Ed Nash and Hunt Slonem. Terri also makes sure to celebrate Clarksville’s local artists, like Jim Diehr, Peggy Bonnington and Mike Andrews, to name a few. The art exhibits also change the most frequently, so there’s always a new reason to check out the galleries. Additionally, Terri ensures the Museum plays host to extraordinary traveling interactive exhibits, such as this past summer’s Nature’s Blueprints: Biomimicry in Art and Design, an adaptation of an exhibit from the High Desert Museum in Oregon, as well as the 2014 blockbuster Wizard of Oz exhibit from the Great Explorations Children’s Museum in Florida.
Historical Artifacts Always on Display
If you’re curious about local history in Clarksville, the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center is the best stop to check out. Nowhere else in Clarksville will you find as many artifacts on display every day. One of the gems of the Museum is the permanent Becoming Clarksville exhibit housed in the 1898 post office building, which displays stories and objects from Clarksville’s past that explore the people, places and events that created the city we know today. The Museum also features one of the best Wilma Rudolph exhibits you can find anywhere, and an immersive mid-19th century log home reconstructed into the Lower Level of the Museum.
No matter your interests, something will grab your attention at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center.Whether you are new in town or a long-time resident, if you haven’t checked out Clarksville’s local history, art and children’s museum yet, visit this page of the Museum’s website to plan your visit.
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.