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The Pink Palace Family of Museums: For the Curious

The Pink Palace Family of Museums: For the Curious
By Robin Gallaher Branch

How about a family trip to Memphis this summer? There is so much to see and explore. But where does one begin? Here is a suggestion. From butterflies to bones to birds of prey, the Pink Palace knows how to exhibit and serve a multi-generational community. This will be a good place to start.

“We have about 500,000 visitors a year,” says Bill Walsh, marketing manager for the Pink Palace Family of Museums.

And “family” it is, with five members such as the elaborate Victorian mansion, the Mallory-Neely House in downtown Memphis, and Coon Creek Science Center, a rustic property east of Memphis known for fossils.

The Pink Palace Mansion carries its own history. Named for its pinkish exterior, the museum began as the dream mansion of Clarence Saunders, founder of Piggly Wiggly, America’s first self-service supermarket. The chain went bankrupt in 1930. A portion of Saunders’ 155-acre property fell to the City of Memphis.

The Pink Palace attracts families—from grandparents who donate memorabilia, to parents and University of Memphis students on a Fab Friday date night, to children on school trips who rush excitedly among exhibits. This museum activates everybody’s “curiosity gene,” judging by visitors’ smiles.

When Keosha Glasgo, a teacher at Aspire Academy in Memphis, was asked what her 12 kindergarteners liked, she shouted over their din, “Everything! They love to run, explore, investigate!” Glasgo praises the planetarium as “kid-friendly and interactive.”

The museum gears exhibits to small fry and displays shells, eggs, and weapons at their level. Microscopes accommodate various heights.

Guaranteed scary is the motorized tyrannosaurus rex, a replica of a dinosaur that lived 85 million years ago. Its growls and sharp teeth indicate it’s hungry!

A popular, permanent, and practical exhibit is two devices showing seismic activity. “Memphis is on a fault,” reminds Walsh.

Mansion favorites include a shrunken head from Ecuador, a python’s skeleton, and an iron casket found underground in a brick vault in Shelby County. The Travel Channel came separate times to photograph the python and casket, Walsh says.

Burton Callicott’s murals decorate a landing on what’s called the grand staircase. Painted in 1934 as part of PWAP (Public Works of Art Project), the two depict explorer Hernando DeSoto’s encounter with the Indians.

Ask Walsh his personal museum favorite, and he continues up the staircase to the Clyde Parke Miniature Circus. Parke, a Memphian, carved the life that fascinated him. Motorized circus acts ring the big top. These include charioteers and a red stage coach with eight horses. Find the blacksmith and baker, trades traveling with the circus. Pretend to buy tickets to see the magician, fat lady, and fan dancer. Watch the elephants work. Combine your imagination with your curiosity.

Next, turn back the clock. Visit the general store, a replica of how the Volunteer State shopped in the early 1900’s.

Angie Barmer, store volunteer, says, “You could get anything and everything,” Cloth bolts and medicines line the shelves. Wooden faucets are 4 cents each; wooden clothes pins, 6 cents each. A washing machine is $2.75. “That’s expensive,” Barmer smiles. A small casket sells for $7.25, a sad reminder of childhood death.

A coffee grinder, cheese cutter, and scale rest atop a wooden counter, with seed and bean bins underneath. “A customer would bring a list to the clerk. The clerk would get all the items and deliver them,” Barmer says. “It allowed the clerk to control prices.”

That control led to Saunders’ breakthrough idea: customer choice. Saunders revolutionized shopping with a turnstile; customers walked through aisles lined with products before paying and exiting through another turnstile. At the Pink Palace’s 1916 Piggly Wiggly, prices are 4 cents for Ivory soap and 16 cents for Del Monte peaches.

Summer camps keep curiosity hyped. Who can resist this clever invitation? “Enjoy the wild side of science!” Lichterman Nature Center, another museum family member, emphasizes exploring nature with age-appropriate activities for ages four-12. For details on prices and hours of operation, visit


Robin Gallaher Branch, a Fulbright scholar, serves as an adjunct professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis. She writes for newspapers and magazines.

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