A tour through Mississippi takes you to a diverse collection of top-notch museums, and some hold real surprises. Together, they demonstrate the depth of the Magnolia State’s talents and the impact the state has had on history.
This Mississippi itinerary begins up north in Oxford, drops into the Delta at Cleveland, rolls into the state capital of Jackson, spends time in Meridian and ends with the gentle breezes of the Gulf Coast in Biloxi. Allow at least five days to make the most of these destinations; a solid week would be even better.
William Faulkner’s Home
In Celtic mythology, a rowan is a tree symbolizing security and peace, which may have been on writer William Faulkner’s mind when he purchased “the Bailey place” in Oxford and named it Rowan Oak. An Irish immigrant from Tennessee built it in the 1840s, and Faulkner acquired it and four acres in 1930.
Rowan Oak became Faulkner’s private place, where he wove his memories and local stories into novels that earned him the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature. The house, now part of the adjacent University of Mississippi, is open for tours. The property now includes 29 heavily wooded acres and the Bailey Woods Trail leading to the University of Mississippi Museum.
Inside Rowan Oak, you’ll learn about Faulkner’s family and see Faulkner’s outline for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Fable” scrawled on the walls of his study. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County was fictional, but by learning about his diverse and peripatetic life — Oxford, New Orleans, Europe, Hollywood, State Department cultural tours — you begin to understand how Faulkner conjured the images he did.
Tip: For entertainment in transit to the next stop in Cleveland, show “The Reivers,” based on Faulkner’s last novel and starring Steve McQueen.
While you’re there: The University of Mississippi’s Blues Archive houses one of the largest collections of blues recordings, publications and memorabilia anywhere. It has more than 70,000 recordings, B.B. King’s personal record collection among them; 60,000 photographs; and 1,000 videos. Contact the archive for tour opportunities.
Grammy Museum Mississippi
Just why did the Los Angeles-based Recording Academy put its second museum in tiny Cleveland, Mississippi? “Because without Mississippi . . . there would be no American music,” said Bob Santelli music historian and executive director of the original Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
Cleveland makes sense as the site of the Grammy Museum Mississippi. Cleveland is on the Mississippi Blues Trail, it is between Memphis and Jackson, and Delta State University and the Delta Music Institute provide institutional cohesion. The impressive museum occupies a 28,000-square-foot building on the Delta State campus.
There is much to learn there, including the oversized impact Mississippi has had on many types of music. Among many others, Mississippi has produced blues pioneers such as Robert Johnson and Pops Staples, opera star Leontyne Price, the “Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers and that fellow from Tupelo named Elvis.
The museum goes beyond Mississippi’s impact to explore many genres of music through more than two dozen exhibits. Through October 2022, check out the museum’s first self-generated exhibition — “MTV Turns Forty: I Still Want My MTV.” Yes, it’s hard to believe MTV is middle-aged.
While you’re there: Railroads put Cleveland on the map in the 1880s, and that heritage is recalled at the Martin and Sue King Railroad Museum, which features a huge O-gauge model railroad setup. After the museum, check out the more than two dozen boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops along Sharpe Street and Cotton Row.
Two Mississippi Museums
“Two Mississippi Museums” is the umbrella term for a pair of stellar institutions that share a campus, a lobby, an auditorium and stories that needed to be told. They are the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which opened with great fanfare in 2017.
“We are shying away from nothing,” said Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “Understanding where we are today is shaped in every way by where we have come from in our past.”
The museums expanded how Mississippi tells its story, starting in prehistoric times and continuing unflinchingly to the civil rights movement.
The civil rights museum’s eight galleries are sobering, enlightening and even uplifting. One, “This Little Light of Mine,” highlights people who laid down their lives for civil rights.
Mississippians’ famous talent for storytelling shines in the history museum through artifacts such as Eudora Welty’s manual typewriters, music that flows from a re-created Delta Juke joint and a 500-year-old dugout canoe created by Native Americans who lived there before Europeans changed the course of their societies.
While you’re there: Just 15 miles from Two Mississippi Museums is the Waller Craft Center right beside the Natchez Trace Parkway in Ridgeland. It is home to the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, whose carefully selected members offer distinctive Mississippi memories for sale. Pick your medium; it’s there.
There must be something in Mississippi’s drinking water that generates so many talented people decade after decade. They shine in literature, music, movies, television, theater, art, journalism and more.
Faulkner, Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Buffett, Jim Henson, John Grisham and Morgan Freeman barely start the list. Keep going with Eudora Welty, Marty Stuart, Leontyne Price, James Earl Jones, Jimmie Rodgers, Tennessee Williams and B.B. King. The names seem endless.
That’s why the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian exists. The attraction shortens its name to the Max. This modern-design building with its sharp-angled exterior walls and a two-story circular Hall of Fame on the inside is an interactive tribute to an astounding aggregation of artistic, talented and accomplished Mississippians.
Temporary exhibits are delights, and the permanent exhibits immerse visitors in the cultural influences that shaped the state. There are eye-catching galleries about the land — from the Appalachian foothills to the Gulf of Mexico — the concept of home, the power of church life and the importance of community.
While you’re there: Visit the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Museum to learn about the Father of Country Music and why he was the Country Music Hall of Fame’s first inductee. Afterward, reward your group with some fried green tomatoes and Comeback Sauce at Weidmann’s, serving Meridian since 1870.
Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art
Here’s the recipe for a delightful, stimulating and unexpected attraction: Take an eccentric artist with wild facial hair and almost unbounded talent and add the nickname he gave himself, the Mad Potter of Biloxi. Make sure he wasn’t fully appreciated until after his death, and then open a museum about him designed by one of the world’s most famous architects.
It is the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, and its primary namesake is ceramic artist George Ohr, he of Mad Potter fame. Some art historians consider him the precursor of the American abstract-expressionism movement. Ohr —1857-1918 — gained fame for his eccentricities, but he found little success in high art circles, even though he demonstrated extraordinary skill at the potter’s wheel. That recognition didn’t come until 50 years after he died.
With a permanent collection and a diverse calendar of special programs, the museum even makes a statement with its design, the work of world-famous architect Frank Gehry. Among Gehry’s other landmarks are the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Louis Vuitton Foundation building in Paris.
While you’re there: Put your group on the water with a 70-minute trip aboard the Sailfish. The excursion is called the Biloxi Shrimping Trip. This tour has been teaching visitors about shrimp and other Gulf of Mexico edibles since 1954.