It’s been said that downtown Memphis is the place where the Mississippi Delta begins. And whether you are a tourist, Memphis native, or elementary school student, the Cotton Museum is a great place to start an exploration of the Delta’s history and our dynamic urban culture. Our Museum tells the story of how Memphis came to be. Engaging exhibits help visitors understand our city’s place in time and explain how the art, history and music that is so important to our culture evolved from the confluence of people that were originally gathered here around the cotton industry.
Memphis was founded in 1812 on the Mississippi River’s fourth Chickasaw Bluff as a shipping port for both cotton and the African slaves whose hard labor was the foundation of the southern economy. As the city bourgeoned into a global hub of Cotton Commerce a vast group of people were drawn here in search of work. Merchants, insurers, aspiring entrepreneurs, former slaves, sharecroppers, and laborers migrated to Memphis from across the south. Included among their ranks were the artists, musicians and story-tellers that helped shape our culture. They came seeking not only economic opportunity, but the chance to share their voices with a diverse and rapidly expanding audience. Through language, music, and art they told created legends, heralded change, and shed light on injustice.
The main exhibit is located on the Historic trade floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange- where cotton traders once stood at the center of the global cotton economy. This grand space is now filled with striking artifacts and exhibits that tell the story of “King Cotton” and its impact on the world. Highlights include original films, detailing specific aspects of the cotton industry, oral histories from individuals involved, and exciting temporary exhibits.
The museum also highlights one of our city’s greatest treasures, the Blues. It describes the unique genre’s evolution from African rhythms, instruments, and oral traditions as well as the soulful spirituals sung by slaves and field hands across the south. African Americans who migrated from the rural Delta carried those traditions to Memphis. Many of our visitors come to the Bluff City interested in hearing Blues music, but are often unaware of this connection: that the Blues evolved out of the desperation and creative will of those seeking a better life in a time of absolute oppression and complete despotism.
Also included in your admission is a self-guided audio tour of Cotton Row. Memphis is the largest spot-cotton market in the world and, for generations, the historic Cotton Row district that surrounds the museum was the center of the worldwide cotton trade. The tour highlights historic landmarks and gives visitors a sense of the clamber and bustle that once surrounded cotton commerce in Memphis.
Our award winning education wing, “Exploration Hall”, explores cotton production, sustainability in agriculture, how technology in the industry has changed since the 1940’s, and how that change has transformed American life and the Southern Landscape. Hands-on exhibits give visitors a tangible sense of the manual labor involved in hand-picking cotton, cleaning the seeds from the fiber, and spinning that fiber in to yarn. The museum then compares those techniques to the methods employed by modern cotton manufacturers. The exhibits engage children and adults alike with games and activities that leave them with a comprehensive understanding of cotton from seed to cloth.