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Mississippi Museums Mark Bicentennial

New museums to open 12 years after Hurricane Katrina.

Tue April 01, 2014 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

As the state of Mississippi prepares to celebrate its bicentennial, construction teams in Jackson are moving forward on two museums totaling $80 million. More than 700 individuals recently joined with the current and former governors and other dignitaries to break ground for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History, which will open in the fall of 2017.

"No state has a richer or more complex history than Mississippi, and no state can rival our contribution to the cultural life of this nation and the world," said Hank Holmes, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). "The Museum of Mississippi will explore the entire sweep of our history, from prehistoric times to the present. The events of the civil rights era are central to the history of the state and the nation, and, for this reason, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will examine that history in more detail."

A shovel line of more than 50 people, including civil rights activists and Choctaw school children in traditional attire turned out to mark the start of construction on the museums, which will cover 319,000 sq. ft. (29,636 sq m) on four floors. Although considered two separate facilities, the museums will share one roof, along with a lobby, meeting rooms, an auditorium that will seat 300 and a catering kitchen.

Each building will have its own exhibit galleries and staff. The second floor will be reserved for a pair of halls to accommodate temporary exhibits. A hall will be dedicated to each museum, though the design will allow for the halls to present combined displays.

Construction work will be carried out in two phases, with the first phase focusing on completing the shell, exterior landscaping and parking garage. Ultimately, both museums will feature state-of-the-art audio and visual experiences. A jail cell theater in the Civil Rights Museum will feature stories of activists imprisoned during the movement, while visitors to the Museum of Mississippi History can learn about natural disasters such as the 1927 Flood and Hurricane Katrina. In addition, the music of B.B. King and Elvis Presley will be featured.

"Thrash has been awarded phase one of the museum project, which basically makes our company responsible for the building structure, said Josh L.Thrash, principal of general contractor Thrash Commercial Contractor Inc. "Phase two of this project will be the interior finish and will be bid out close to the end of our contract, which expires in May of 2015."

Work began in December 2013. Spoil dirt is currently being excavated and removed from the site. Auger cast piles, soldier piles, concrete foundation, structural concrete, masonry and roofing will be necessary.

"The main challenge on this project is the aggressive schedule," Thrash said. "There’s approximately $33.5 million in work that has to be completed in 18 months. Also, it’s a major foundation project, which has been started in the middle of winter, when the weather is less than desirable."

Main equipment used on the job includes excavators, dozers and dump trucks for removing the spoil dirt, along with skid steers and mini-excavators for the foundation. Forklifts and man lifts will be used for the masonry. The principal material used on site is 4,000 psi (276 bar) concrete, with approximately 35,000 cu. yds. (26,759.4 cu m) being used. There will be large quantities of limestone, brick and CMU blocks used for the exterior façade. About 2,500 tons (2,267 t) of reinforcing steel will be needed for the foundation and vertical structure.

"The trickiest portion of the project will be the installation of the limestone façade, because limestone comes in smaller pieces than manufactured stone, and it’s a finished product," said Thrash. "Another will be the vertical concrete structure, due to its mass and floor elevation changes."

There will be approximately 120,000 cu. yds. (91,746 cu m) of spoil dirt removed, and minor demo work involving old parking lots and storm drainage will be required, according to Thrash.

"The grading on the buildings will be a little bit tricky because of the natural lay of the land," said Thrash. "These buildings are being built into the side of a hill involving about 30 feet of elevation change, so there will be a lot of grade changes as the buildings go from the lower level around to a separate parking garage at the top of the site.

"For the last 10 or 15 years the majority of the property was vacant for the most part. There’s a parking lot on site for one of the adjacent buildings, but for most of my memory it has been vacant. The only issue we have run into so far is some underground fuel tanks from a previous filling station that was removed long ago."

For Thrash, the job is already rewarding.

"This is the largest project that our company has taken on, so with that, and the historical value of these buildings, we are extremely excited about the opportunity. These buildings will stand for many years and likely provide a look into the past for hundreds of thousands of people. The civil rights portion of the building is unique, and one of the only dedicated civil rights museums in the country. As a small construction firm, the national attention that this project has gained is a big deal for our resume moving forward."

In 2005, the state history museum closed when Hurricane Katrina tore the roof off the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, Miss. By the time the new museums open in 2017, Mississippi will have gone 12 years without a state history museum. The Department of Archives and History has the world’s largest collection of artifacts relating to Mississippi’s heritage, and the new museums will feature items such as a miniature chess set molded from bread handed out to Freedom Riders at Parchman prison and a rare 1818 20-star U.S. flag.

Museum curators are appealing to the public for additional artifacts and documents for the museums, particularly from the era of the civil rights struggle. The museums recently obtained an ornate garnet and gold necklace donated by descendants of a Union soldier who stole the jewels from a Jackson home during the Civil War and recorded details of the theft in his diary.

"Visitors to the Museum of Mississippi History will explore the events, traditions, and people that make our state so rich and distinctive," Holmes said. "In the introduction theater, visitors will gather around a crackling campfire and, as the lights dim, the sounds of a single guitar will introduce the story to come."

A series of exhibits will be showcased, including how Mississippi’s first civilizations advanced human technology and competed for territory and resources. Topics ranging from treaties and statehood to the Civil War and Reconstruction will be addressed, along with the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II. Organizers believe opening the first state-operated civil rights museum shows the world that Mississippi has made tremendous progress since the civil rights era.

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will feature seven galleries of exhibits encircling a central gallery that serves as an entryway. A sculpture honoring civil rights veterans will be the focus of the dramatic light-filled space.

Eley Guild Hardy Architects was the lead design firm in a joint venture with Dale Partners Architects and Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons Architects & Engineers, all of Jackson, Miss. According to David M. Morris Jr., Eley Guild Hardy senior project manager, the job involved an extremely atypical design process.

"It started in 1995 as an underground state history museum behind the historic Old Capitol Museum and included renovation of the adjacent original state archives building for collection storage connected by a tunnel.

"In 1999 the site changed to the space adjacent to the new state archives building, requiring a completely new design as a stand-alone museum including collection storage," said Morris. "In 2003, the project was placed on hold until construction funds were appropriated. In 2010, Gov. Haley Barbour proposed the state fund a civil rights museum, and that it be combined with the Mississippi Museum of History with shared support spaces to minimize costs. The design was significantly changed to accommodate the addition of the Civil Rights Museum and garages."

Key design considerations included the back-of-house operations, approach and entry and the public spaces.

"We understood the state expected an appropriately formal design of the Museum of Mississippi History that would contribute to the immediate context of existing and historic state buildings," said Morris. "In both museums, we believed strongly that the exhibits should be the focus of the visitor’s experience, and that the buildings should fit with the fabric of the architectural context. We also believed the Civil Rights Museum needed a distinct appearance from the rest of the complex. Per the funding, statute required a design consultant for the Civil Rights Museum. We engaged The Freelon Group of Durham, North Carolina. Through several design charrettes and public meetings, we developed a more contrasting design and material palate.

"Construction funding was the biggest challenge on this project, because it’s a hard sacrifice for a small state rich in history — but less so in revenue — to publicly fund such a large job in these economic times. Phasing the work was also a huge challenge. Construction phasing became necessary almost immediately. The current phase is for the structural systems and exterior work of all the complex. The second phase will be for the interior construction, and the final phase will be for exhibits, furniture and equipment. Another challenge was the evolution of the project over time including changing sites, changing programmatic requirements and changing leadership.

"In our experience, phasing always complicates projects. In this project, we had to develop a scope of each phase within the anticipated funds for that phase. We have to plan for how future contractors can access and complete their work without damaging the work of previous contractors.

"In our joint venture regarding the design process, our firm is responsible for overall design and specific detailing of the Mississippi Museum of History and site. We also coordinate detailing with our partners regarding the Civil Rights Museum and garages. Dale Partners is detailing the Civil Rights Museum and leading the construction administration. Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons is detailing the parking garage, and will become more involved in interior detailing in the second phase."

Morris said that having two separate museums made the project far more difficult to complete construction documents.

"We had originally planned for future expansion of the Mississippi over a future garage in the location the Civil Rights Museum now occupies; however, using this location for a different museum was a big change. The organization of two museums within one building is extremely complex. The issue of distinct images for each museum is a challenge, as is a secure joint entry from street and garage that is appropriate to both museums but a part of neither. Common spaces for circulation, education, museum store, and museum administrations is also key. Less difficult were the shared collections storage, support and MEP systems."

The most important aspect of sustainability is longevity, according to Morris.

"Saving energy operating a building is critical, but because buildings have so much embodied energy just being assembled, it’s environmentally irresponsible to not build them to last. We have attempted to design a 100-plus year facility that can accommodate internal changes with a robust exterior and structural construction."

Despite the challenges, Morris was eager to take on the high-profile project.

"As an eighth-generation Mississippian with a life-long interest in history, I saw this job as a dream project — the kind you expect to encounter only in an architectural school studio or design competition. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

For Holmes and his team, however, reviewing the vast amount of material for possible inclusion in the two structures has proven to be an overwhelming task.

"The Museum of Mississippi History is very artifact rich, with over 1,700 slated for exhibit. Staff has methodically gone through the collection to select the best artifacts to represent the history of our state. The Civil Rights Museum will feature some extraordinary artifacts such as three quilts from the Slave Series of noted textile artist Gwendolyn Magee. As for documents and images, the MDAH collection is vast, and only a small percentage of its items will be featured in the museums. Exhibit designers have worked closely with MDAH staff to make selections. It is a lengthy process."

The state legislature provided the first $40 million for the new museums, and five million was raised from private sources. The remaining money will come from a combination of additional bonds and funds raised by the Foundation for Mississippi History and the Foundation for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

"MDAH is committed to telling the state’s history honestly and in all its complexity, said William Winter at the groundbreaking, "We create exhibits and programs that grapple honestly with our history, no matter how painful it is. That is the mission of this department, and it is the mission of these two museums. Some of the exhibits in the museums will be very tough; both museums have areas where visitors can sit and reflect on what they have experienced."

In remarks to reporters, Gov. Phil Bryant said, "Thanks to these two museums, generations to follow will see and hear those stories. They will see that Mississippi is much more about the future than the past."

"I could not help but think about how far we have come to this point, how proud I am of Mississippi and that these two buildings are going to show the world who we are, where we have been, where we are today and where we are going," said Myrlie Evers, former chair of the NAACP and widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

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