Along with incredible food, a thriving cultural scene and epic natural resources, the South is famed for its laid-back, slow-and-steady attitude. But if Southerners take time to smell the roses, they sure don’t rest on their laurels, at least not judging from the wealth of new and revamped attractions popping up all over the South.
Whether it’s the debut of a destination with state-of-the-art storytelling or a bold update to an iconic institution, these landmarks are must-see stops on any tour of the Southern states.
National Museum of the United States Army
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
It’s been a long wait, but the National Museum of the United States Army is almost open. Set to debut on June 4, 2020, the institution was first envisioned by Congress some two centuries ago when representatives asked the armed forces branch to create a place dedicated to chronicling its history. The 185,000-square-foot National Museum of the United States Army will be the country’s only institution that traces the narrative of the Army from its start to the present day, a feat the museum will accomplish by focusing on the stories of individual soldiers.
“It’s meaningful to us working at the museum that everything goes back to the soldier,” said Susan Smullen, the museum’s public affairs officer. “The visitor is always reminded that there might have been this historic occasion, but it always links back to the human element.”
Less than a half-hour outside Washington, D.C., the museum will feature thousands of documents, images and artifacts, including showstopping items in six galleries, like a 27-ton Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle. A cutting-edge Experiential Learning Center will allow group members to find solutions to issues that face soldiers through hands-on exercises. For example, group members might have the chance to diagnose a virtual patient’s medical condition or build a virtual bridge in the engineering station.
Smullen has yet to officially announce offerings for groups, but bet on them to include after-hours experiences and packages bundling together things like tickets to the Army Action Center simulation gallery, lunch passes and retail vouchers. The museum is free but will require a timed ticket to enter, and there will be a cost for some special features.
In all the world, there is no horse racing track as legendary as Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. To ensure that this jewel, which turns 145 years old in 2020, continues to sparkle as brightly as ever, renovations to the facility occur frequently. In late 2018, just before the Breeders’ Cup, workers wrapped up more than $30 million of remodeling that added features like a pedestrian plaza; a revamped paddock entrance; and a new transportation infrastructure, most notably featuring a bigger, more user-friendly bus depot.
That’s great news for groups, but Churchill isn’t stopping there. It was announced at the end of October that the racetrack was about to embark on an audacious $300 million project that will include the addition of a permanent covered stadium, a historical gaming facility and a seven-story hotel on the first turn of the track.
“The rooms will have balconies facing the racetrack so you can watch the horses while you have your morning coffee,” said Jordan Skora, Louisville Tourism marketing communications manager. “That’s an experience nowhere else in the world offers.”
The project is slated to wrap up at the end of 2021, but there are always plenty of special experiences available for groups at Churchill Downs, like the popular Backstretch Breakfast Tour, which features a railside morning meal with a view of the horses’ workouts. Live racing group packages are also offered, including one for Derby Day. Tours should be booked through the Kentucky Derby Museum, on the grounds of Churchill Downs.
History Museum on the Square
There was never any doubt that Springfield’s new history museum needed to be located on Springfield’s public square.
“Our front door leads directly to so many historic sites,” said Krista Adams, the History Museum on the Square’s director of development. “The Trail of Tears passed through the square. The Butterfield Overland stage line, one of the first that traveled west, started in St. Louis, and we were the first stop west. We had Civil War encampments from the two battles that occurred in Springfield, and we’re also the site of the very first Wild West shootout. Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt had a shootout right outside our front doors.”
The History Museum on the Square memorializes these events and more with an interactive facility that uses the very latest technology to immerse groups in the city’s colorful past. For example, the Birthplace of Route 66 gallery offers not only retro neon signs and a working jukebox from 1947, but also a hands-on experience that allows visitors to drive down a screen version of the famed road, complete with engine noise and horn honks. Springfield, which is on the famed roadway, is responsible for giving it its name. Other galleries feature a video-projected creek group members can “splash” in, and a chamber where they can pick up a replica Colt pistol and shoot at a target from the same perspective Wild Bill had on that fateful day.
The 18,000-square-foot museum, which opened its doors last August, offers groups escorted tours through its six permanent galleries, walking tours to historic sites in downtown Springfield and even step-on bus tours.
Mosaic, the Jekyll Island Museum
Jekyll Island, Georgia
Mosaic, an institution dedicated to exploring the rich history of Jekyll Island, might be a renovation of a previous museum, but it has little in common with its predecessor. While the former museum was housed in quarters so antiquated they lacked air conditioning, Mosaic, which opened in April 2019 after a five-year, $3.1 million redo of the 122-year-old structure, is a modern stunner. Showcasing five distinct eras in the Georgia barrier island’s past, with exhibits from the “Native American Era” to the present-day “State Era,” it houses more than 2,000 objects.
Thanks to an updated climate control system and expanded space, Mosaic can properly preserve and display historical gems like a Native American dugout canoe made of Jekyll pine and stylish Louis Vuitton luggage that belonged to members of the Jekyll Island Club during the glamorous Gilded Age Club Era. Other exhibits include a Studebaker that plays old radio ads and music when guests press the pedal, and a working period neon sign that once advertised the old Jekyll Hotel. These artifacts mesh beautifully with the architectural details of the building — formerly a stable for workhorses — that still remain, including fireplaces, high lofted ceilings and stable doors.
“Groups can enjoy a number of experiences from Mosaic,” said Alexa Orndoff, director of marketing and communications at the Jekyll Island Authority. “We have our popular trolley tours to see the historic district and visit some of the original homes of the Jekyll Island Club’s first members. Or, try more unique experiences like ‘critters and cocktails,’ where our island biologists introduce you to some of our wildlife education ambassadors, and ‘historic cottage crawls’ where groups can mingle like the millionaires. They all provide groups an opportunity to make their gatherings more meaningful.”
West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center
Opened in 1998, the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center just keeps getting bigger and better. Already boasting the West Tennessee Cotton Museum, the West Tennessee Music Museum and the Hatchie River Museum, the center added the Tina Turner Museum in 2014 after acquiring the historic Flagg Grove School. The singer, born Anna Mae Bullock, attended the school in nearby Nutbush; today the building, filled with stage costumes, gold records and more, stands next to the last home of local blues great Sleepy John Estes. And in May 2019, West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center executive director Sonia Outlaw-Clark cut the ribbon on a covered pavilion and stage area, a boon to the center’s popular annual events.
“We had three bluesmen from Brownsville who were pioneers in the industry in the early 1900s,” said Outlaw-Clark. “We kind of try to keep that tradition alive with the Exit 56 Blues Fest, which we hold Memorial Day weekend. We do a special tribute to women and the blues on Sunday, with all women performers. And on the fourth weekend of September, we have our Tina Turner Heritage Days. Friday night is a fan gathering, and on Saturday we do tours to Nutbush. They also all go to the church in Nutbush that she used to attend for Sunday services. And Saturday night is the big Tina tribute concert.”
Group leaders can also book guided tours of the museums or even the surrounding area at the center.
Asheville Art Museum
Asheville, North Carolina
The more than $24 million expansion of the Asheville Art Museum wasn’t the easiest project, but then anything great takes time. The 54,000-square-foot institution’s new look debuted last November following a three-year effort that involved linking three buildings together through historic preservation, the restoration of existing spaces and brand-new fabrication. The update boasts a light-filled glass entrance that replaces the old lobby; 70% more gallery space, including the SECU Collection Hall’s 10 new galleries; and a rooftop cafe and sculpture terrace overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But it’s not just the spectacular renovation that makes the Asheville Art Museum so special.
“We have a depth of knowledge, understanding and artworks that represent southern Appalachia and western North Carolina,” said Kristi McMillan, the museum’s adult programs manager. “So, we can tell the story of how artists working here were influenced by American art at large and how American art at large was influenced by this region”
McMillan said it’s difficult to pick any particular favorite artwork because, as an active collecting institution, new works are constantly coming into the museum. But groups touring the facility might want to keep an eye out for Willie Cole’s “Stowage,” a variation on woodblock printing that uses symbolism to examine African American cultural identity.
The museum can provide groups of 10 or more private guided tours.