The beginnings of the Tennessee State Museum can be traced back to a museum opened on the Nashville public square in 1817 by a portrait artist, Ralph E.W. Earl. A young boy who visited that museum in 1823 wrote home that he had seen a life-size painting of then General Andrew Jackson. That same painting hangs today in the State Museum, now located at the corner of Fifth and Deaderick streets.
Today, the Tennessee State Museum is one of the largest state museums in the nation with more than 60,000 square feet of permanent exhibits and a 10,000 square foot changing exhibition hall. The museum's interpretive exhibits begin 15,000 years ago and continue through the early 1900s interpreting Tennessee's history during the Prehistoric, Frontier, Age of Jackson, Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods.
These sections include special displays of furniture, silver, weapons, quilts, and paintings produced by Tennesseans. There are reproductions of an early 19th century grist mill and authentic settings of an 18th century print shop, frontier cabin, Antebellum parlor, and Victorian painting gallery. The Tennessee State Museum's Civil War holdings of uniforms, battle flags and weapons are among the finest in the nation. The museum also has many one-of-a-kind items associated with such famous Americans as Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson, David Crockett, Sam Houston, Alvin York, and Cordell Hull.
In addition, there are exhibits about African-American soldiers in the Civil War, a free black family living in Knoxville before and after that war, and the women's suffrage movement. A changing gallery features special history, art or cultural exhibitions. The Military Museum, a branch of the Tennessee State Museum, is located in the War Memorial Building across the street from the main facilities. Exhibits cover America's overseas conflicts, beginning with the Spanish-American War and ending with World War II in 1945.