Pink Palace mansion reopens with new outlook on Memphis history

By Published: December 06, 2018 10:45 PM CT

The polar bear, shrunken head and miniature circus are back in the Pink Palace mansion as it prepares to reopen to the public Sunday, Dec. 8. The reopening follows a five-year rethinking of space at the mansion, which closed for two years for the physical transformation.

The three icons of the Pink Palace Museum are on the upper floor of the pink marble estate in the newly renovated, most iconic part of the museum that gives visitors access to the second floor for the first time since 1977.

Steve Masler, manager of exhibits for the Pink Palace Family of Museums, talked about the transformation Tuesday as work crews enclosed the refurbished Clyde Parke Miniature Circus in glass.

“What we wanted to do was to show them in a context that related to why they were here,” he said. “That story is never really told.”

The Pink Palace has been regarded by some Memphians as more of an attic than a museum. Decades ago, the museum hosted an exhibit in an attic-type setting showing donated items that were not on display. A decision in the mid-1970s to auction off some of those donated items drew the scorn of some patrons.

Construction on the museum began in the 1920s when Memphis businessman Clarence Saunders donated it the city for completion. Saunders planned to live in the mansion, but his supermarket empire took a turn that saw him ousted as its leader. That journey is now part of the history displayed within its walls that blends with the history of Memphis.

“You can go lots of different ways,” said Caroline Carrico, supervisor of exhibits and graphic services. “We tried to come up with a story that will make sense no matter which way you walk through. From the beginning, we wanted to tell the story of the mansion. In a way, it really is the biggest artifact that we have.”

Masler said that seems like a simple concept.

“It took at least a year and a half to develop the storyline and then hone it down to be what the galleries were going to be and begin writing the labels,” he said. “We decided very early on that the mansion as an artifact should tell its own story. It wasn’t difficult to say that, but then to do it became the challenge.”

That’s why the wooden circus made by Clyde Parke from 1930 to 1956, complete with a model train of handmade circus cars, gets a grander setting that Masler compares to a “jewel box-like setting.” It includes a life-size re-creation of the ticket car in the model and large circus posters from the big-tent era that came to Memphis.

The stuffed polar bear, one of six in the museum’s collection, comes with the story of how the bear got to the Pink Palace 50 years ago.

“The person who collected the polar bear is still alive,” Masler said. “Our curator of history found him and he came in. He donated all of the things that he used during the expedition to collect the polar bear to give it context.”

The front entrance of the mansion is still dominated by Depression-era murals by Burton Callicott that depict Hernando DeSoto at the Mississippi River. But it now includes panels along the second floor overlooking the lobby that explain the making of the murals, which garnered some resistance from a patron who at one point told the artist, “You are ruining that wall.”

Masler said the museum worked with Memphis gallery owner David Lusk and the Callicott family to secure another one of his works from the 1930s that is on the second floor, along with a self-portrait.

“We not only have the murals where they are, but now their interpretation by Burton Callicott himself and how he got the job of painting those murals during the Depression and what the style of those murals is and what the symbolism is,” Masler said.

Saunders’ story is complex, but moves quickly from his start selling groceries wholesale to general stores to the birth of a self-service supermarket. There is a walk-through set of a country store that includes such items as a coffin from the S.Y. Wilson general store in Arlington. The country store replica is next to a revamped and more spacious replica of a Piggly Wiggly store complete with price tags from the era. The story of the nation’s first supermarket includes the system of buying on credit at the general stores and why items had a higher cost if bought on credit as well as Saunders’ strategy of a cash-only business and other rules of the franchise.

The Saunders story details what happened to his estate after his financial setback, including the development of Chickasaw Gardens with property covenants and ads that specified the land was “all for home loving Caucasian people.”

Carrico said it is important for the museum’s story to acknowledge that in its first three decades and a bit beyond, it wasn’t welcoming to all Memphians. The exhibits include the report of a protester arrested for racially integrating the museum in 1960.

A circa-1918 stained-glass window salvaged from the T.H. Hayes Funeral Home on South Lauderdale Street during its 2010 demolition has a place of honor, along with W.C. Handy’s horn.

“It’s something that we haven’t been able to do in the past is explore the museum’s place in the city,” Carrico said. “That’s something we’ve tried to do. We have over 80,000 objects in the collection. What that means is we can tell a whole lot of stories. One of the most exciting things about this project is it will use the collection we already have to tell stories we have never told. And share things that they have never been able to see or that they haven’t been able to see for several decades.”

In telling the story of the Pink Palace’s overseers across the years, Carrico and Masler learned about a collection of glassware secured under museum director Julia Cummins. When she was forced out of her position, the glassware was given to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The collection is now back at the Pink Palace on loan from the Brooks.

A cloth doll of a Chinese servant sold at the unpopular sale in the 1970s has been bought back and is on display. The bones of a pygmy hippopotamus buried on the grounds sometime in the 1970s during a paring of the museum’s collection still haven’t been found, nor have Saunders’ original design plans for the mansion he called Cla-Le-Clare, incorporating the names of his children.

As a museum, the mansion was home to items from the Cossitt Museum, a tower room at the old Cossitt Library full of artifacts – mostly archaeological or dealing with natural history. The Cossitt Room is re-created.

A mobile app (iOS and Android) interacts with beacons located around the mansion to reveal more information.

“It will draw people’s attention to things they might not notice,” Carrico said. “Did you notice that in the Cossitt Room there were two mummies in there? The only two mummies that we own.”

Masler said the museum has a wealth of items not on display currently to give them a break from the wear and tear of being on exhibit, and to allow for a change in museum offerings for those who want to come regularly.

“We have more artifacts in the mansion now than there were since 1977 when the mansion was closed to the public,” he said. “There are thousands of things to see here, but there will be changes, and things have to be changed out as we move along. There will always be a new exhibit every time you come.”


Memphis Pink Palace Museum Steve Masler Caroline Carrico
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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