Memphis’ First Museum

The first museum in Memphis was a room on the second floor of the tower over the entrance to the Cossitt Library. The Cossitt Library was completed in 1893 and was funded though the bequest of Frederick Cossitt. Cossitt was a Connecticut born entrepreneur who maintained a wholesale dry goods business in Memphis until the Civil War. He promised his friend Carrington Mason that he would make a gift of a public library to the city. When he died in 1887, his will did not include the Memphis library, but his heirs decided to give money for the building anyway.

Cossitt Library 1893
The library’s statement of purpose specified that the Cossitt Library was “To establish and maintain a free public Museum…” As part of this objective, after the 1897 Tennessee Centennial celebration, the elite Memphis women who had composed the city’s Centennial Board and the wives of the library’s board of directors came together to form the Cossitt Library Museum Association. The Centennial Board had developed an exhibition in Nashville’s Centennial Park, paid for by Shelby County tax revenue. After the exhibition, the county donated the cases from the exhibit to the library, and the ladies created the ad hoc museum in an unused upstairs room.
Memphians contributed a wide array of curios to the small museum. Some of the donated objects were a painted ostrich egg, leaves from a tree next to George Washington’s tomb, an assortment of minerals, a splinter from one of Napoleon’s ships and objects from China. Mrs. Carrington Mason made one of the largest donations to the museum in 1903 when she gave her son Elliston’s collection of prehistoric pottery from Mississippian mound builders. Elliston was the youngest member of the library’s board before his death in 1901. He had paid two men to dig up the pieces from the Wappanoka, AR mound over a fifteen year period. Due to its size, only a third of the collection was on display. The estate of explorer and hunter Paul Rainey donated another group of objects after his death in 1923. Rainey was an African game hunter, a pioneer in the field of photography and known for lassoing a polar bear put on display at the Bronx zoo.
When the Pink Palace opened in 1930, the museum’s Advisory Board voted to accept the transfer of the Cossitt Library collection into the new city museum. Several objects from the original Cossitt Collection are still in the Pink Palace’s collection including the Mason pottery and a narwhal tusk and Arctic artifacts from the Rainey collection.

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