Design firm debuts Sultana museum ‘vision’

Haizlip Studio plans would walk visitors through the story

By Mark Randall

The design firm working with Marion on plans for a permanent Sultana disaster museum have come back with a new interpretive twist on how to tell the story — and an affordable price tag. “I don’t think we are charged with just trying to help you design a museum,” said Reb Haizlip of Memphis-based Haizlip Studio. “What I take this charge to be is to make something that works here, is supportable here, is financeable, is sustainable, and that really fits your community and is not just a grand vision of a museum that costs X amount of dollars without making sure that it meets all of the parameters of success.” Haizlip and his team, whose designs include the Children’s Museum of Memphis and the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum in Tupelo, presented an alternative vision and ideas for the museum during a recent workshop in Marion with members of the Sultana Historic Preservation Society. The team combined elements of a plan by Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas Heritage Sites and Gene Salecker, who owns the majority of the Sultana artifacts, scaled it down, and included some new themes about how to tell the story. Hawkins’s and Salecker’s plan included a two-story scale model of the Sultana similar to the one at Mud Island Mississippi River Museum in Memphis. Haizlip said to build a museum based on their plan would require a 20,000 square foot building and cost about $9 million. “Gene and Ruth wrote a great, detailed plan that takes you through the whole story,” Haizlip said. “But I’m going to give you an interpretive twist because to build the interpretive plan as it is written today in its scale and scope is a big undertaking — we’re talking lots of millions. I think this budget may be a little higher than where you want to go. So I think we might want to think about how we might want to tell that story in as compelling a way and with all of those components and the interpretive plan intact, but in a different way.” Rather than building a scale model of the boat, Haizlip suggested the group instead consider building two cutaway views of the boat — a before version showing the boat overcrowded, and an after version depicting the explosion on the back of the wall which visitors would see as they round the corner. The cost to build this version is $2.8 million and would require a 10,000 square foot building. “We call this the two faces of the disaster,” Haizlip said. “You can cut it in half. It’s a different interpretive story, but it is the same concept. If it is on two side we can begin to think about building the Sultana in parts to tell specific parts of the story. You already have a steamboat on Mud Island. And it’s a really nice one. So maybe we don’t have to build the full Sultana boat.” The Haizlip design also incorporates sections devoted to telling the story of the Mississippi River, building the Sultana, prison camps, aftermath, Sultana survivors, and a memorial wall. “This is still the entire interpretive story with a twist that takes that boat and changes the way you think about it and cuts the square footage down,” Haizlip said. “We can do everything that is important to that story in a sort of abstraction of the boat right down the center of the room. You talk about the conditions of the river. You talk about the beginning of the Civil War and the importance of the river. You talk about loading the boat. You talk about the boilers. You talk about the overcrowding. Then you turn the corner, and it blows up. Same story. Same narrative. Same artifacts. We can take it down by half. I think that is something you need to think about. I think you can do an outstanding job of telling that story in a reduced museum.” The Sultana was a Mississippi River paddlewheel steamboat that exploded about seven miles north of Memphis in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, killing over 1,700 people in the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history. The city opened a small museum last April on Washington Street to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the disaster, and is proposing to build a permanent museum next to the Woolfolk Library. The Marion Advertising and Promotions Commission, which oversees the money collected from the one cent “hamburger” tax, has agreed to spend $400,000 to help build the museum, and another $75,000 a year to operate the museum over the next ten years. Haizlip Studio’s projects include the Children’s Museum of Memphis, Memphis Botanic Gardens Visitor’s Center, Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa, Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., and the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum in Tupelo. Haizlip also suggested that the group re-frame its interpretation around the Civil War’s aftermath and show the destruction the war caused. “This is the darkest darn story of the Civil War,” Haizlip said. “But it is an amazingly powerful story and I don’t think we are keying in on that. This is not really a river story. At the heart of the story, this is about the war. Your brothers are dead. Your houses are blown to smithereens. Your economy is destroyed. Your mules are shot or stolen. Your crops are devastated and wrecked. Your cities are torn asunder. Your president is dead. And these soldiers who were on board had the worst of the worst. They came out of a place worse than any of us can imagine. Then they board this boat and were crammed aboard because of greed and cronyism with a boiler that was shoddy. Do you think these guys had a chance of surviving the Mississippi River? No way! It’s no wonder why this story wasn’t told. “Americans were crushed — spiritually, mentally, emotionally. I think if you want to tell a powerful story about the Sultana, you frame it in the context of the war. Frankly, you have an opportunity to tell a story in a way nobody has before. People will walk out and go ‘whoa! I don’t think I understand what these men went through.’ This story will make you think my God, what in the world were we thinking? We tore this country apart and blasted away a whole generation for a cause. You are looking at human depravity at its worst. War is hell. This is an incredibly heartbreaking story and people are going to go out and go ‘Wow! You have got to see this thing. I want people to walk out and be mentally exhausted because it is so real and so powerful. This is a way Marion can build something nobody else has.” The presentation drew rave reviews from committee members. “Wow!” said Mayor Frank Fogleman. “I think it shows that we absolutely got lucky by picking the right people to work with. I think this is great. Reb did a masterful job taking elements of the Hawkins and Salecker plan and boiling it down to something that we can grasp. They said they were going to challenge us and they have certainly given us a lot to think about. I’m excited. And I’m not an excitable person.” Salecker, who owns the majority of the artifacts, was also impressed. “This is great,” Salecker said. “I like it. And I like how they started with the devastation.”


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