Delta Blues Museum

Shelley Ritter

Executive Director

Delta Blues Museum

1 Blues Alley Clarksdale, MS 38614

Clarksdale, United States

National Medal for Museum and Library Service 2013 winner


Keeping the Blues Alive

The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi is Mississippi's oldest music museum and the world's first museum devoted entirely to the blues, America's greatest contribution to world music. It is open to the public six days a week and by appointment. 

The Museum was founded in 1979 by the Carnegie Public Library's Board of Trustees and by Library Director Sid Graves, who envisioned a Delta Blues Museum, due to the number of tourists who were visiting Clarksdale in search of blues artists, blues music and blues culture.  Inevitably, on their quest, they would stop by the library in search of information.  Graves, with assistance from noted scholars Bill Ferris and Patti Carr Black, as well as the support of the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Public Library, established the Delta Blues Museum.  Initial funding support came from the library, the Mississippi Humanities Council, blues artists, and blues fans.
In its beginning, "the museum" consisted of a few small cases of artifacts and memorabilia located in the library's Myrtle Hall Branch.  In 1981, the collection was moved to the main library branch.  As visitors increased and interest grew, it became evident that the Museum needed a larger venue.  In 1999, the Museum moved into the renovated Illinois Central freight depot, a Mississippi Landmark property.  A 7,300 sq. ft. gallery expansion was completed in 2012. In 2013, the Delta Blues Museum was honored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services with a National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation's highest honor for museums, at a ceremony hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama in the East Wing of the White House.

The National Medal for Museum and Library Service honors outstanding institutions that make significant and exceptional contributions to their communities. Selected institutions demonstrate extraordinary and innovative approaches to public service, exceeding the expected levels of community outreach. The award is the United States' highest honor conferred on museums and libraries for remarkable community programming and resources.

The National Medal committee was impressed that such a small museum could have such a great impact all over the world.  They lauded our innovative approaches to public service and our extensive community outreach.  They were impressed with our ability to simultaneously serve our local as well as our global patrons with only three full-time staff members and a $400,000 annual budget.

The Delta Blues Museum primarily serves two distinct audiences:  tourists and residents of Coahoma County. The immediate benefactors of our educational programs are the Arts Education students and the citizens of Coahoma County. However, the impact of our program extends far beyond local boundaries.
Our Arts and Education program is one of the few, year-round arts-based afternoon programs for youth. The program helps sustain our community's cultural heritage by keeping blues music alive, which is appropriate since much of its history originated in our area.  This innovative program was selected as one of 50 finalists for a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in 2013 and again in 2014.

Through performances by our studentsmdash;The Delta Blues Museum Bandmdash;plus outreach programs and educational features on our website, we are able to exponentially expand our instructional capabilities. The Delta Blues Museum Band has performed at the Chicago Blues Festival, and is a regular for the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival as well as the Juke Joint Festival. These unique educational opportunities impact around 50,000 people annually. Many more additional contacts (impossible to accurately count) are made through public performances by the Delta Blues Museum Band, our traveling trunk, and our website. 

All of the artists featured in our exhibits have impacted blues music in their own way. Many of the artists are "known" to our visitors, both as friends and as musical heroes.  Their humor, songs and stories have been and will remain an integral part of the Clarksdale experience, impacting all in profoundly significant ways.  Regardless of their era, from the 1920s to date, music shaped their lives and their lives shaped their music.   In turn, their music has influenced all genres of music, from classical to rap.

Imagine how hard it was for Robert Johnson or Charley Patton to exist in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, as they were making their music. What drove them to create this music that has forever changed the way that music is played/heard/passed along? The legacies created by these artists have endured and will continue to do so.  Meanwhile, we are helping to nurture new artists who are learning the old music and making their own.  As this generation honors the heritage of the past through new interpretations, the music continues to thrive.

Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum need a "big picture" that will help them orient facts and myths about blues in mental and physical spaces. Most of our visitors have an idea of the connection between blues and Clarksdale, but they may not grasp the underlying links among the music and its culture, rhythms, and instruments. Our new permanent exhibits will connect these concepts and place them in a meaningful context.

We purposefully engage musicians, scholars, local historians and our visitors as we plan and implement activities.  The endorsement of the blues musicians and their families is essential to professional excellence, and our many international visitors help us recognize what resonates with them as being integral to the Clarksdale blues story.

We have consistently used our mission statement as a measuring tool and held all consultants accountable to it as well.  Our advice to share would be to keep in mind that as you begin your project you should be certain of your desired end result.  As you select project professionals to help you plan and achieve your goals, it is important that they comprehensively understand the overall objective.  Although the direction or scope of the project can evolve as you progress, you must retain clarity of your essential vision, mission, and values.

Initially, we looked at simply upgrading the exhibits in the existing museum space.  As we researched the Delta Blues Museum history, we recognized that we needed more space to adequately address the depth and breadth of its influence.  We were fortunate to receive support from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and the Mississippi Department of Transportation to support the physical expansion and the planning for new permanent exhibits.  Difficulties in our expansion included determining how to add a sizable yet complementary addition to the existing historic structure with continuity between the old and new spaces.  Essentially, the museum is "landlocked" (our footprint is fixed), so we added a second story to the new wing, which can be used for meetings and/or temporary exhibitions.  We are currently raising funds for the final design and fabrication for new permanent exhibits.

In 2012, the Delta Strategic Compact recognized our efforts with an award for Excellence in Tourism.  In 2013, we were recognized by the Institute of Museum and Library Services with a National Medal for Museum and Library Service and by the Links, Incorporated.  Our Arts and Education Program has twice been selected as one of fifty finalists for a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award and The Blues Foundation recognized museum director Shelley Ritter with a Keeping the Blues Alive Award for historic preservation.



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