In today’s uncertain times, museums can act as an anchor in the storm, says Rebecca Carlsson, a journalist who writes about the arts. In a column for MuseumNext, a passionate community of museum leaders, makers and innovators, Carlsson writes that museums may be seen as “merely places where forgotten objects go to enjoy their final years.” But they are so much more.
“There’s a strong case to be made that the museum is more relevant today than it has ever been,” she wrote, listing five reasons why we need museums now more than ever. They include learning from the past, bringing communities together, standing firm in the face of adversity, fostering digitalism and innovation, and educating future generations.
That’s why the Surgoinsville Area Archive and Museum is such an exciting project — even more so given the community’s size. The 2000 Census showed Surgoinsville with but 1,484 residents. But 10 years later, the community had grown 21% to 1,801 residents, and in 2019 had grown another 23% to 2,223. Surgoinsville is attracting residents at an incredible rate because it’s such a quiet, laid-back place to live, and that is exactly what people moving out of cities are looking for.
Despite its deep and important history, there is a dearth of museums in Northeast Tennessee, and Surgoinsville is putting its much larger neighbors to shame with a local history museum to be located in the basement of the public library. And you can be assured that it will be a first-class presentation thanks to two people.
One is native son Charles Grow, who joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. After retiring from active duty, he became curator of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, from which he is now also retired. Grow recently moved back to Surgoinsville, where he was recruited by the Surgoinsville Area Archive and Museum board of directors to consult on the design and layout of their proposed museum.
The other champion is Ural Ward, a resident who has spent the past 60 years adding to a massive and impressive collection of Native American artifacts of more than 14,000 pieces including arrowheads, spear points, jewelry, pottery, tools, knives, pipes and fish hooks. Ward is loaning his entire collection to the museum, which will feature displays and exhibits beginning with the prehistoric history of Surgoinsville, the Native American population, pioneers, river transportation, farming, the railroad, war veterans and local musical heritage.
The public area of the future museum has been renovated and is ready to begin creating and installing displays. As Grow envisions the museum, visitors enter to an introduction about Surgoinsville and its surrounding communities and will follow a clockwise tour focusing on the Holston River and its mills and historic uses to a display of archival documents to Ward’s Native American collection.
“We would have that whole corner dedicated to talking about the Cherokee, talking about the pioneers who were in the area, as well as Mr. Surgoine (whom the town is named after),” Grow said.
Following would be an exhibit on the Civil War and how it impacted Surgoinsville and Hawkins County, followed by a section on historic local businesses and a section on families and home life and how it has changed over time. There would also be a section on Dr. Conner Lyons, who was a much-loved local physician and the first mayor, and on farming and tobacco, as well as a display on schools and churches.
Another display would focus on local musical heritage. Board Chairman Johnny Greer said the goal is to have the museum open in time for the next Riverfront Festival in early September.
Congratulations to the museum board, Grow, Ward and all others involved.
The museum will fulfill those five important purposes as outlined by Carlsson and should certainly serve as an inspiration for the region.