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Finding Treasure in Tuscaloosa

April 19, 2010 by · Comments Off on Finding Treasure in Tuscaloosa 

James Peale: George Washington at Yorktown

I recently made my first trip to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that southern city with the funny sounding name. Seems it derives from the Choctaw Indian chief Tuskaloosa and from two Choctaw words, “Tushka”, meaning warrior, and the “Lusa”, meaning black.  Well, now I also know where Tuscaloosa’s river, the Black Warrior, got its name. Much to my surprise, the city, which is home to the University of Alabama,  brims with fantastic museums. But who knew?

The Westervelt Warner Museum of American Art lies in the hilly woodlands off Lake Tuscaloosa. I found masterpieces displayed in a home-like setting: a living and dining room, library and even a tavern room with a bar. Why the ladies restroom is hung with 11 Mary Cassatt’s. The priceless objects range from a Paul Revere engraving to current artists and include sculpture, china and furniture. The poignant collection, amassed by Jack Warner, recalls our nation’s struggles and growth. Jack is both a passionate historian and patriot.

Hopper: Dawn Before Gettysburg

I was surprised to find that he often gives tours, even at age 92. I was lucky enough to meet both Jack and his wife, Susan, and saw firsthand the excitement and fulfillment they get from sharing their treasures. Give yourself a full morning or afternoon to see the famous works you likely thought were elsewhere.

Moundville Archeological Park, owned by the University of Alabama, is an unpretentious 326- acre preserve. Moundville was the center for 10,000 Mississippian Indians over 800 years ago. Her people built  flat-topped mounds as ceremonial structures and homes for their nobles. A stockade once surrounded the settlement, but is long gone. However, twenty-eight hills remain and you can climb them. The tallest, at 58 feet, was used by the chief. I took the steps up to the top and tried to imagine this lost civilization. I could see the symmetrical layout and fortunately I’d toured the museum first, so my visualizations of daily life ran quite colorful.

Inside the Moundeville Museum

Inside the Moundville Museum

The museum underwent a ten year, $5-million renovation and officially reopens on May 15th. I managed a sneak peek. First, I was greeted by symbols of Native American culture like hawks and eagles, which are mounted on wooden heraldic (totem) poles. Then, I entered and found life-size characters dressed for a wedding. Further on, I bumped into a medicine man hiding in a cave or as the curators call it, an earthlodge. He steals the thunder performing a 3-D hologram-like show about a journey into the afterlife. The Disney-type encounter grabs the attention of  kids and adults alike.  Don’t overlook the significant archeological artifacts contained within the interactive display cases throughout the building. To make the park even more family friendly, camping is an option.

Coach Bryant

Coach Bryant

I couldn’t go to Tuscaloosa and miss the University campus. Last year the Crimson Tide once again won the National Football Championship and the Waterford trophy proudly resides within the Bear Bryant Museum. I found some of the art, like the collage in the photo, were painstaking works of devotion. The museum houses memorabilia covering the history of college football and features the famous hound’s-tooth hat wearing coach. Sports fans could spend many hours in this place.

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center

The luxury German auto manufacturer Mercedes Benz maintains their only US production facility in Tuscaloosa, which greatly benefits the local economy. Car enthusiasts are attracted by factory tours.  Anyone 12 and older can tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but by reservation only. You’ll get an up-close look at assembly lines and cars being built by the combined efforts of mechanical robot and human hands. My detailed account of this tour can be found at www.automotivetraveler.com.

Tourism Bureau

Tourism Bureau within the Jemison-Van de Graff Mansion

I also stopped by the Tourism Bureau and picked up a free audio tour of the downtown. The city boasts some unusual architecture and an array of elegant to down-home restaurants. Dreamland BBQ is known far and wide for their oven pit barbequed ribs. My restaurant reviews can be found on my food blog.

Indeed, I found Tuscaloosa a real treat. Her museums bring unexpected delights.

If you go:  Tuscaloosa is in West Alabama, about a two and a half hour drive from Atlanta, Georgia or one hour from Birmingham, Alabama.   www.visittuscaloosa.com


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Terracotta Warriors are Terrific, but Marching On

April 9, 2009 by · Comments Off on Terracotta Warriors are Terrific, but Marching On 

Terracotta Warriors Exhibit

Terracotta Warriors Exhibit

My daughter, the critic, is rather hard to please.  So when she called to say, “Mom, the terracotta warriors were terrific,” I was happy.

The museum had this cool video that showed how the soldiers were made,” she added.

And my husband, not the biggest fan of galleries, wholeheartedly agreed. “The visit was fascinating and well worth our time,” he said.

The exhibition comes from one of the greatest archaeological digs of the 20th century, the unearthing of China’s First Emperor’s terracotta army in Xian.  Initially discovered in 1974, more than 9,000 figures were buried for 2,000 years.  The excavations are ongoing, but these pieces exhibited are on loan from the Chinese government.

I was disappointed that I was unable to go to Atlanta, but on Laura’s rating alone, I can honestly recommend the show.  Now hurry, the soldiers are marching on.  They leave Atlanta’s High Museum on April 20, 2009.

Those who live near Houston, Texas can make plans to view them at their Museum of Natural Science after May 22. The last US opportunity to examine the statues will be from November 19, 2009–March 31, 2010 at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC.

To whet your appetite and learn more about the terracotta army, watch this excellent video: A visit to Xian and the Terracotta Warriors

George Washington’s Mount Vernon Ties Technology to Tradition

February 16, 2009 by · Comments Off on George Washington’s Mount Vernon Ties Technology to Tradition 

Mount Vernon

George Washington's home--Mount Vernon

I visited Mount Vernon shortly after new museums opened in 2007 and shared this story in Chesapeake Family Magazine.  I still love the old house and grounds, but believe the addition of  state-of-the- art technology in the museums makes a visit or return mandatory.

New Museums: Grand Old House

George Washington sleeps in his tomb at Mount Vernon, as he has for the past 210 years. However, most Americans believe he slept in every city, state, and tavern up and down the east coast during his 67 years of life. Confusing myths grow like vines on a forgotten gravestone, intertwined with few facts about the real George.

To awaken national interest and debunk untrue stories, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association spearheaded a $100 million campaign. They built new educational centers and a museum mostly underground — leaving the original, tranquil grounds undisturbed. The decade-long project was completed two years ago — in time to celebrate GW’s 275th birthday.

Visitors discover rarely seen glimpses of our first president, through the action-adventure move, “We Fight to be Free,” featured in the Ford Orientation Center . Young Washington, a British officer under General Braddock, encounters a violent attack during the French and Indian War. Braddock is mortally wounded, so GW takes charge of the regiment, though, in this battle they are defeated.

In addition, guests may be surprised to learn that as a plantation owner, George experimented with crop rotation, ran a lucrative fishery and owned the largest whiskey distillery in the colonies.

Another exhibit drawing attention is an intricately crafted dollhouse, an exact one-twelfth replica of the mansion. Fifty miniaturists spend over five years creating flickering candle lights and fireplaces that glow, needlepoint rugs, hand-painted china and bedrooms prepared for guests (apparently a common practice for the Washingtons, as they had 637 overnight visitors one year).

Some choose to tour the historic estate and gardens, hike to the tomb or visit (April- October) the working Pioneer Farm. Others proceed directly to the Reynolds Education Center and Museum, featuring state-of-the-art galleries, interactive displays and five additional theaters.

The exhibits teach through an osmosis-like process, slipping knowledge into the minds of children and teens without their notice. The atmosphere is a pleasing new-age design: a combination of a natural history museum with Disney-type animated motion, wax figures Madame Tussard would envy, a theater in the round and computer games. Despite all the gadgetry, the presentation retains a reverence for the genteel hero, without sugar coating his lifestyle or his era.

My teenage daughter raved about the Revolutionary War film, complete with seats that rumble during cannon fire and falling snowflakes during scenes re-enacting the crossing of the Delaware.

Toddlers explore the hands-on history room, bursting with child-sized colonial costumes, a push-button mural that produces the sound farm animals and 18-th century toys.

I overheard a teenage girl joke that a forensically age-reversed wax replica of nineteen-year-old George liked “sorta hot.” A father and son jumped with fright when a surprising cough arose from a lifelike sleeping soldier, encamped at a reconstruction of Valley Forge.

Most tourists seem fascinated by the famous false teeth, encased similar to the crown jewels’ display in London. The dentures aren’t wood, but human and animal teeth sunk into a metal contraption. No wonder the picture on the dollar bill depicts a puffy-faced George.

The Reynolds Museum, another 6,000 square-foot complex, houses over 500 Washington artifacts including a portrait gallery, Martha’s table set for entertaining, a war room full of military memorabilia, jewelry displays and original documents. History buffs savor the previously unseen treasures.

By George, anyone wishing to learn about Washington and our country’s past can triumph at Mount Vernon . The place isn’t asleep; it’s awake with new energy and dancing (not on Washington’s grave), but under a slumbering old homestead.

If you go:

Mount Vernon is located in Virginia, just 16 miles from downtown Washington, DC. The estate is open 365 days a year and includes on-site dining options. Usual admission fees are $15 for adults, Seniors are $14, youth ages 6-11 are $7 and children 5 and under are free.

The Distillery is open from April to October.

Visit www.mountvernon.org for additional information.


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