“Nashville Sites” Project Proposal

Nashville Sites: Understanding Nashville’s Narrative using Public Historical Markers
Metropolitan Historical Commission of Nashville and Davidson County
Project Director:
Mary Ellen Pethel, Ph.D.
Grant Program:
Digital Projects for the Public: Prototyping Grants

In 1967, the newly-formed Metropolitan Historical Commission of Nashville and Davidson County (MHC) initiated a historical marker program to commemorate significant people, places, and events in the city’s past. With over 150 historical markers now in the county, this program is one of the most successful, and most public projects to date. There is quite an extensive process to erect a marker, but most importantly: “Every statement on a Metropolitan Historical Commission marker must satisfy two conditions: Is it significant? Is it accurate?” ( For this project, I will begin with these two historical questions and expand to include the following:

  1. How can marker content be complemented with other primary sources to convey a more engaging and important story.
  2. How can this digital history project combine individual entries for markers to create a broader historical narrative for downtown Nashville’s historical site markers.
  3. In what ways can I connect this project to other significant downtown sites  where there are not metro historical markers.
  4. How can I best engage audiences both local and visiting to participate in the walking tour, and how can I best use historical scholarship to support this project.
  5. Are there connections to the broader arts and humanities community that I can easily incorporate?

Omeka will be the primary format for “Nashville Sites” with an interface based on a modified version of “Histories of the National Mall.” This project, sponsored by an NEH grant and developed by George Mason University and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media leads the way in digital histories based on public history sites within a particular geographical area. “Nashville Sites” will follow a similar thematic layout based the following categories: maps, explorations, and places. In contrast to , this project will designate and create a walking tour based on existing, physical historical markers. The site for this project is and relevant primary documents will be available for each destination point. These primary sources include images, renderings, and other media files.

In addition to these project resources, digital technologies will enhance metadata available via public records. Curatescape will be used to provide latitude/longitude for geo-spatial mapping, Omeka exhibits will organize marker text and context, and there will also be additional outside links related to selected markers. Points to be included for this project range from the earliest known business to the Ryman Auditorium to historical churches to government buildings.

This format will effectively convey Nashville’s historical narrative based on a humanities-centered approach. Selected markers in the downtown core will be used as the prototype for a larger long-term project will ultimately include all existing markers managed by MHC. The Metropolitan Historical Commission is the steward of two commissions which guide historic preservation projects for metro Nashville. The MHC is funded by the citizens of Davidson County through tax revenues with an annually appropriated budget. In addition, MHC is supported by a separate 501(c)(3)—Metropolitan Historical Commission Foundation (MHCF). The MHCF solicits outside funding and donations for projects that exceed the commission’s budgetary scope. The MHCF has verbally committed to additional funding as this project develops, and the MHC staff is currently collaborating and providing data and sources related to “Nashville Sites.”

The timeline for the project, for this stage, is May 2017. However, it is my hope that funding from MHCF will continue this project until all 150 markers are part of the digital project. There are several targeted audiences: visitors (tourists), local residents, and students. Reaching these audiences will depend on whether or not the project is user-friendly, which is why I am using a web rather than an app-based platform. Evaluation of “Nashville Sites” will be determined, in large part, by the number of hits the site generates from month to month once fully functional.

Distribution and sustainability with specific public user groups will depend on continued support and funding through the MHCF, the development of a social media presence, and the promotion of via visible signage on the markers themselves and brochures (and the like) in local businesses and hotels.


User Research Findings

Nashville Skyline, 2009. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and in the Public Domain.

This timing of this module was serendipitous. I have a great-aunt and great-uncle (Jean and Ben) who are in town for the next two days, and I was able to interview them tonight at dinner. They did not come to Nashville to visit me, but rather asked me to dinner because they were here. This perhaps made the small talk easier, but I was surprised by some of their answers. Ironically I learned quite a bit about both of them during the process of the interview as the subject and purpose of the questions were unrelated to family. I have lived in Nashville for several years, but I had no idea that they attended college at Belmont University (then Belmont College) in the 1960s. They said they have always loved Nashville and feel connected to Belmont, but the reason they come to visit is based on the music and cultural scene of the city. They like country music, but are not part of the “honky tonk crowd” per their description. They are both retired teachers who grew up and have lived most of their lives in northeast Georgia. Ben and Jean love to come to Nashville every 1-2 years as a “getaway” and prefer it to Atlanta because of the downtown district, museums, good restaurants, and its walkability. Their plans included a Valentine’s Day concert featuring Frankie Valli and the Nashville Symphony, which plays in the amazing, yet often overlooked, Schermerhorn Symphony Hall located in the heart of downtown.

My great-aunt and great-uncle both like history, and particularly southern history, but their knowledge of Nashville history is fairly basic. For example, they knew Andrew Jackson lived in Nashville and that Fisk University played a role in the Civil Rights movement, but did not know that James Polk was from Tennessee or that Nashville was largely occupied by Union forces during the Civil War. Jean and Ben love music of all genres and are nostalgic about blue grass and the Grand Ole Opry in particular. They thought that my project sounded great and both would be interested in using it as a walking-tour guide of important historical sites. Even though they are staying in a hotel downtown and have walked around the downtown area, they described it as “wandering around” with no real sense of purpose or geographical pattern. Their question for me, and one that I did not include in my original interview, is important if this project is to succeed. They asked, “How would we find out about this website and project?” This is something that I am going to have to consider. One option is involving the Chamber of Commerce and local hotels. Another option, which I have discussed with the Metropolitan Historical Commission (which manages the historical markers) is to add some kind of brief leader line, info, the web address to the physical historical markers themselves. This could perhaps be added to the back of the markers but would require MHC and Metro Council approval since it is public, tax-funded property.

The second potential-user interview was completed retrospectively. A friend of mine recently hosted a couple who traveled to Nashville from Vermont for vacation. My friend asked if they would mind being interviewed and they agreed. I called and interviewed John and Pat Buttrick this week, following their recent visit. They were drawn to Nashville because they have never visited and, in their words, “kept hearing about how great it was.” Both of them are middle-aged working class Caucasians who save up and take a one-week vacation each year. The Buttricks knew very little about Nashville’s history other than the fact that there were Civil War sites. They were drawn primarily to “see the sights” and visited the Johnny Cash Museum, Ryman Auditorium, spent time in records shops and honky tonk bars. They reminded me that “Yankees like country music too.” I asked if they saw any of the historical markers downtown and they said they read several as they walked around downtown. Pat commented that they took a picture with one entitled “Birthplace of Bluegrass” that is positioned in front of Ryman Auditorium. They also visited the Hermitage (approximately 15 minutes from downtown) and rented a car to visit Mammoth Caves, a vast system of underground caverns that is approximately an hour from Nashville. They said that they chose not to do a trolley tour because it was too expensive and took too much time, but a project such as mine would be very appealing to them.  When I asked what would make useful for tourists, they said, “It would be great if you added good restaurants near each location and the prices/hours of museums.” Both John and Pat noted that they also came to Nashville for the food, and in particular, “barbeque.” While this may be beyond my scope and purpose – particularly for a project sponsored by local government, I could perhaps provide links that already exist for food, museums, etc.

I learned several things from both my initial interview protocol as well as potential user interviews. My research has validated the need and usefulness of as an engaging tool for visitors, whether they are in Nashville for the first time or are frequent guests with a prior connection. I found that many of my original interview questions were not very effective because they assume, to an extent, that the average visitor to Nashville knows little about the subjects of my questions. Prior historical knowledge about Nashville, and the context of Nashville’s history when compared to other southern cities and U.S. urban areas is minimal and largely generalized. From my research and interviews I was able to determine what people are interested in knowing about Nashville. Albeit with my prompts, all those interviewed were curious about Nashville’s role in, for example, the Civil War or Civil Rights movement once I gave them basic bullet points. Another subject of great interest is music, and so the historical markers related to historic events or sites of music history will be important to the project’s success.

The interviews also provided me with new challenges. For example, how can I design the project so that people can and will use it? How can I market it so that visitors or residents know that it exists? Can I make it educational and engaging in a way that complements the physical historical markers? And finally, how do I navigate an independent project within the constraints of local government rules and regulations?


Ryman Auditorium: Physical v. Digital Sites

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Nashville Archives and in the Public Domain.


In an article entitled, “Where the Soul of Nashville Never Dies,” author Jennifer Justus writes: “As Nashville undergoes a whiplash of change under a web of steel cranes, the Ryman stands sturdy among the neon and glass. Hallowed halls like ‘the mother church of country music’ can’t merely be built like a skyscraper or condo complex after all. They must become — painted with layers of experience and mystery over time. Try to uncover the meaning in their spirit by peeling back the paint, and you’ll only find another color, deeper and richer, worn in,” (Where the Soul of Nashville Never Dies).

The Ryman Auditorium is a special site of public history which plays multiple roles in showcasing Nashville’s history as Music City.  The auditorium was originally constructed for as a tabernacle for religious services in 1892, but it quickly became the city’s go-to venue for hosting a wide range of performances, lectures, and events. Today a must-visit attraction for residents and tourists the Ryman Auditorium serves two purposes: museum by day and concert hall by night. I believe the Ryman serves a third purpose as a public history site, which is that the building itself is important and has undergone two major restorations since the 1990s. Its value as a conduit between local history and the public is immeasurable as the structure and what happened in that space (and the performances that continue) make public history not only interesting but relevant.

The original building exterior was brick and had a single front entrance for guests. It began as a theater in the round, but within thirty years a balcony and stage was added. When the building became the home of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1940s, the Ryman’s management, led by Lula Naff, added a backstage area to better accommodate performers and shows. Known as the “Mother Church” of country music, the Grand Ole Opry’s historic chapter at the Ryman came to a close in 1974 when it moved from 5th Avenue  into new quarters at Opryland USA—a twenty-minute drive from downtown. One newspaper headline in 1974 read, “Minnie Cried,” referring to Sarah Cannon (better known as Minnie Pearl).

The Ryman entered a twenty-year period of abandonment, vandalism, and disrepair from 1974-1994, and developers discussed the property’s purchase and demolition. Not until Emmy Lou Harris performed at the Ryman in 1994 did the building regain positive recognition. Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman, which won many awards, and inspired many other country music legends to perform at the Ryman. The local community, in addition to high profile musicians, infused both life and renewed interest into the auditorium. This led to the larger of two restorations in 1995. Additional restorations and additions have allowed the Ryman and expand and enhance its exhibit space inside the theater while removing the introductory film, food/beverages, and gift shop to newer structures connected to the auditorium. Great care was taken to preserve the building’s historical integrity while also make it functional for continued used. For example, two doors were placed inside the framing of the original second story windows to allow access to the balcony. Guidelines for landmarks on the National Register also guided the restoration and renovation process.

There is a permanent exhibit featuring the collaboration and partnership between the Ryman and Hatch Show Print posters. This exhibit runs the length of the entire width of the building between the original exterior and the addition. A second permanent exhibit in the same space on the second floor had artifacts and a primary document collection related to the building and significant people who have performed or spoken at the Ryman. The list is extensive—from Booker T. Washington to Helen Keller to Elvis Presley. Current rotating exhibits in the include: “Workin’ on a Building,” “Showplace of the South,” Mother Church of Country Music,” “Inspired: 125 Years of Performance,” and “Ryman Renaissance.” The rotating exhibits are not large, because of the building’s multi-functional purpose, but they are impeccably curated and the museum exhibits’ layout (across the back and sides of the auditorium) also add educational elements to the already rich tour and spatial arrangement. In other words, the exhibits “lead” visitors through the museum portion of the auditorium while also creating a single flow of traffic. Interactive elements include video and QR codes for audio narration that can be pulled up on a patron’s personal mobile device. There are not assigned docents for self-guided tours but there are for tours that include the backstage area.

Still, there are guides available on both floors to answer questions and direct visitors. Given the functional duality of the building, I do not think the physical exhibit space could be any better organized or staged. In fact, I visited the Ryman last year, before the new exhibit spaces were completed, and I can attest to the effectiveness and efficiency of the exhibits today compared to previous displays. Prior the 2015 renovation, the Ryman had some small case exhibits that displayed memorabilia and a looped documentary about the buildings 1994-95 restoration. Today, there is an amazing new 3-D type film, entitled The Soul of Nashville, that encapsulates and sets up the building’s history and importance. Visitors begin their tour with this eleven-minute film before going into the actual space. The Ryman Auditorium today operates as serious museum by day, clearly dedicated to educating and presenting its history to the public.

The historical interpretation, artifacts, and text presented by the exhibits and their function within the space subtly but steadily reinforce the larger historical argument: The Ryman is the single most important symbolic space for music in Nashville, the South, and perhaps the nation (aside from Carnegie Hall which is the only other venue referenced in any of the exhibits or materials). I would have to agree that having toured the venue and its exhibits—the Ryman Auditorium does an exceptional job making this case to the audience. The audience is two-fold: 1) tourists and those not from Nashville and 2) Nashville residents of all ages from school groups to senior citizens. Nearly every Nashvillian knows of the Ryman, but many still do not know its history and its function as a museum and archive.


In Jennifer Justus’s article, she also writes: “The Ryman is a physical emblem of the spiritual — a reminder that takes us beyond ourselves. But it also offers a comeback story of Nashville, saving a piece of its soul.” I would argue that a significant part of this most recent restoration and the effort to share the Ryman’s story has been digital. According to the museum’s director, Joshua Bronnenberg, Ryman Auditorium did not have an online public history presence (beyond a webpage that said museum tours existed) prior to 2016,

It is important to note that the digital public history elements are designed with the intention of luring web users to the actual museum. There are no primary source repositories or full-text documents. The digital site does offers several online exhibits that are excellent overall in terms of content and organization. One such online exhibit is a timeline. Each entry slides out from the side to connect to the chronological ordered years that run vertically down the center of the page. With many timelines or online exhibits the user can click on the entry box to access the full description, record, and any related images. This is not the case for the digital presence for the Ryman Auditorium. Granted the description text is pretty substantial for each timeline entry, but there is no full record or image attached.

Other online exhibits highlight four specific people or things connected to the Ryman’s history and success: Tom Ryman (main donor of building’s construction), Lula Naff (manager of the Ryman 40+ years), Hatch Show Print (which is associated with the Ryman and has an unofficial partnership but is a separate enterprise), and the Grand Old Opry (and its history as a live and recorded performance). All of the digital exhibits are nicely laid out, engaging, and create a logical “click-through” process of the site. The Ryman’s online presentation successfully delivers materials to its audience, which is mostly made up of people who hope or plan to visit the Ryman in-person. The digital site assumes that the audience is interested in country music and/or Nashville.

The Ryman’s digital presence also provides introductions for each of the rotating exhibits as well as a description and summary of each type of tour (self-guided, guided, backstage). A one-minute trailer for the amazing new eleven-minute film is also posted and can be viewed full-screen. While its content online differs from and cannot compare to the physical space, it succeeds in providing a general overview as well as specific spotlights to reach a larger audience online (ex. timeline). There are no online opportunities to interact with site creators beyond a general “Contact Us” page. However, given the Ryman’s many functions–it remains doubtful that an  interactive online platform to connect visitors with the museum’s curators or archivists was desired.  There is much that the Ryman Auditorium could do to make the digital experience more educational. However, given its purpose and scope, the digital experience is more than effective. After perusing several local sites to visit in person for this assignment; it was in fact the Ryman’s digital presence that made me want to invest the time and money required for admission. I must say, the $20 was well worth it, and I highly recommend visiting the Ryman Auditorium.


Jennifer Justus, “Where the Soul of Nashville Never Dies,” Bitter Southerner, 2016, (accessed February 7, 2017).

Ryman Auditorium Tours, 2016, (accessed February 6, 2017).

Ryman Auditorium History, 2016, (accessed February 5, 2017).

“Photos of Nashville Theaters,” Metropolitan Nashville Archives, (accessed February 8, 2017).