Why You Should Visit the Memphis Cotton Museum
In a space once filled with cigar-smoking, fedora-wearing cotton traders making their fortunes or going bust, visitors to the Memphis Cotton Museum will find themselves immersed in a colorful history of the Mississippi Delta’s biggest cash crop. Opened in 2006 and housed in what was once the legendary trading floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange, the museum tells the story of King Cotton – and the culture its cultivation birthed – through a thoughtfully curated collection of artifacts and oral histories.
Today’s cotton traders can work from anywhere, moving tons of fluffy fiber around the world with a few mouse clicks, but in the days before computer trading, much of America’s cotton was bought and sold in the bustling exchanges clustered around Front Street in downtown Memphis.
“I think of the trading floor as being a kind of coffee shop for that neighborhood. It was just kind of the centerpiece of the neighborhood, and people gathered there for business, but it was social too,” museum founder and cotton trader Calvin Turley says. Turley traded on the Exchange floor in the 1970s and still keeps an office in the building above the museum. “I’ve always enjoyed a sense of place,” he observes, “and was looking for a way to commemorate what was a unique kind of central marketplace.”
The Cotton Museum preserves the look and feel of the old Memphis Cotton Exchange. In fact, the main exhibit hall appears much as it did when the space was home to the Exchange from 1922 to 1978, retaining original architectural features and some important Exchange artifacts.
Running the entire length of an upper open gallery some 10 feet above the trading floor is the trade board, a blackboard on which workers, called chalkboard markers, wrote out the ever-changing cotton prices as quotes from around the world came in through the Western Union office located directly below on the trading floor. The museum board displays actual price quotes from a day in May of 1939, when values could change in a matter of minutes, sending the chalkboard markers clambering up and down ladders along the gallery to keep up. A recreated version of the Western Union office sits below the board today, and in the old phone booths, visitors can access oral histories produced by Memphis videographer Willie Bearden.
Wrapping around three walls just below the ceiling is a mural by Memphis artist David Mah entitled The Story of Cotton. The art features imagery inspired by archival photographs, film, literature and music, blending popular culture and history in its visual storytelling.
“We want to emphasize that this story really extends beyond local boundaries, and that it is a complex story,” Turley says.
Indeed, the museum collection creates an interwoven narrative of cotton culture, highlighting a number of themes: slavery, sharecropping, plantation life, technological innovation, religious practice, high-society cotton carnivals and the blues, another major Delta export. One of bluesman B.B. King’s Lucille Gibson guitars is displayed not far from a case documenting the perennial battle against the boll weevil. Another nearby display explains how cotton was “classed” by experts for quality. One case even commemorates the epic domino games traders played during lulls or after the market closed. “For a while, the Exchange outlawed dominoes because people got into fights over the games,” Turley recalls.
Of course, cotton’s story continues to evolve. Turley hopes the museum will continue to change and grow, and that new threads of the narrative will become part of the cultural fabric. “We want to create a piece of cultural tourism that continues to be well-researched and is genuine. It isn’t just about Front Street and the cotton exchanges. It’s much more than that.”
If You Go...
The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange
65 Union Ave., Memphis TN 38103
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Phone: (901) 531-7826