Every year for the past few years a major museum has opened in Mississippi, and 2018 is no exception. Mike Gerrard reports back on the new MAX in Meridian.
In 2016 The Grammy Museum opened in Cleveland, the first Grammy Museum outside of Los Angeles. In December 2017 two major museums opened under one roof in Jackson: The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Mississippi History Museum.
And in April 2018 in Meridian, the new $50 million Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience, The MAX, which celebrates Mississippi’s rich cultural heritage.
Think of Mississippi and most people might think of Mississippi Burning and blues singers. But the southern state, which is about the size of England, has produced an amazing wealth of talent across all the arts. You’re talking such diverse names as Elvis Presley, William Faulkner, Morgan Freeman, John Grisham, Jim Henson, Robert Johnson, James Earl Jones, B.B. King, Leontyne Price, Jimmie Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Oprah Winfrey and Richard Wright.
The MAX showcases all aspects of Mississippi’s culture, with all those names and a few more being inducted into the museum’s initial Hall of Fame. The Hall of Famers greet you as you enter the large and airy two-storey atrium, which reminds you in particular what an array of musical talent came from this small state, which has more Grammy winners than any other place in the USA, including California and New York.
The creativity isn’t limited to the people who are honoured in The MAX, but applies to the museum itself. Divided into six areas (Land, Home, Community, Church, People and Places, Global Community) the exhibition area on the second floor oozes originality. The displays seemed designed to appeal to everyone, whether you’re a geek into tech or a five-year-old kid into having fun.
One computer allows you to make something on a virtual potter’s wheel, coaxing a vase into shape without actually getting your hands dirty. Having discovered that I wasn’t cut out to be a potter, I moved to the computer next door, which challenged me to paint in the style of one of three different Mississippi artists. Hall of Fame member, the painter Walter Inglis Anderson, had nothing to fear from me.
Maybe I would do better in the music business. Maxie’s All-Star Jam Session was easily my favourite exhibit. It encouraged you to build your own band, choosing a bass player, guitarist, drummer and pianist from several different options. With about 15-20 Mississippi musicians to choose from altogether, you could create your own supergroup.
Unfortunately, I have to say that pairing two of my heroes, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis, in the same band didn’t work too well, as Bo Diddley’s distinctive rhythm didn’t match the blues licks of the rest of the group. Volume controls allow you to silence or ramp up any one or more of the four musicians, and with Bo Diddley muted, it was a rocking band. John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters are some of the other would-be band members, and it was great fun pairing people who’ve never played together in real life. It must also have been fun, and challenging, to find the right sound clips from each artist, all playing to the same beat, to make sure the end result was in the same rhythm no matter what the combination of musicians.
As well as music, Mississippi can boast numerous writers, from giants like Faulkner and Tennessee Williams through to today’s stars such as John Grisham, Richard Ford and Barry Hannah. In one room devoted to writing, a clever display has words from a Mississippi writer (I saw John Grisham and Eudora Welty when I was there) appearing on a typewriter, as if fresh from the mind of the author, while at the end of the desk the text reappears in a book, with a changing visual of what’s happening in the story shown alongside it. It was hypnotic.
Next, I wandered into another room where kids and adults were all busy creating quilt blocks, celebrating Mississippi’s tradition of quilting. Nearby a young boy and his mother were having laughs playing with puppets, in a display celebrating the work of Jim Henson. Henson was born and raised in Mississippi, and it was watching wildlife near his home in Leland that the character of Kermit the Frog first took shape in his mind.
From stained-glass artists to gospel choirs, and from the ‘Singing Brakeman’ Jimmie Rodgers to opera singer Leontyne Price, Mississippi has no shortage of stars, and the new MAX Museum shows them off to, well, the max.
Tell me more about The MAX in Mississippi
The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience
2155 Front Street
Meridian, MS 39302
The MAX is easy to find in downtown Meridian, Mississippi, right off of Interstate 20.
You can vote for the next inductees to The MAX’s Hall of Fame here:
America As You Like It offer a 7-night holiday to Mississippi from £1315 per person including return flights from London to Jackson on United Airlines, car hire, 2 nights at the Westin Jackson, 2 nights at the Alluvian Greenwood, 1 night at the Hilton Garden Inn Tupelo, 1 night at the Hampton Inn Oxford and 1 night at the Hilton Garden Inn, Meridian. Price based on 2 people sharing.