Thursday, May 30, 2024

Sultana Disaster Museum picks director to lead an expanded venue that will add 'wow factor' to story of 1865 steamboat explosion on the Mississippi

The longtime executive director of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis is leaving to oversee the expansion of a museum in Marion, Ark., dedicated to the story of the Sultana maritime disaster that occurred near the end of the Civil War.

The Sultana Historical Preservation Society announced Thursday the hiring of Jeff Kollath, who had been at the Stax museum for nine years and previously worked at historical, veterans and humanities sites in his native Wisconsin.

Kollath (left), who is in his mid-40s, officially starts work as executive director at the Sultana Disaster Museum on July 1, a day after he leaves his current job.

An enticement was an opportunity to build something fresh. Kollath will be deeply involved in devising exhibits for the new location of the Sultana museum.

"As a museum professional, one of my greatest joys has been uncovering, interpreting and telling the stories of everyday people and their extraordinary lives,” Kollath said in a news release. “There are thousands of stories to be told in this new museum. The Sultana disaster is something that still reverberates generations later, and I look forward to working with the board and others in making this important story come alive in our museum for guests of all ages."

The society touted Kollath’s experience in grant writing, budget development, facilities management, public speaking and exhibit development and design. The Memphis museum where he has worked provides a deep look at Stax records, which was instrumental in the development of soul music.

“Jeff expressed to the Board of Directors his passion for making history come alive through high quality exhibitions, immersive educational experiences, and free, accessible programming, and we could not be more excited,” the Sultana board said. Marion is across the Mississippi River from Memphis. 

The society earlier this year awarded a construction contract for a larger, more dynamic museum than the current small one a few blocks away. The venue will be housed in the gymnasium of an old high school, with a couple additions.

Museum acquired this Grand Army of the Republic item remembering brothers who died on boat (SPHS)
Marion, close to where the side-wheeler Sultana exploded and caught fire in the Mississippi River, broke ground in 2022 for the venue, which will honor soldiers who died in the disaster and local residents who helped save others who were plunged into the river in late April 1865. About 1,200 passengers and crew perished. Hundreds of Federal soldiers, many recently freed from Confederate prisons, including Andersonville and Cahaba, were on their way home.

John Fogleman, president of the Sultana Historical Preservation Society, told the Picket in an email Thursday, "Especially valuable is Jeff's ability to tell compelling stories in a compelling way. Our museum is all about telling the story of the individual soldiers and that is one of Jeff's strengths."

Kollath has been in the museum business for 20 years and has experience in telling the stories of soldiers through his work at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

Pat Mitchell Worley, CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, which overseas the Stax museum, said the museum professional is “a lover of great stories at heart, and Stax and the Sultana, the greatest maritime disaster in America, are both that. He’s getting the chance to create a museum from the ground up, and draw on his passion for research and storytelling with this new opportunity."

Design for the front of larger museum in Marion (Courtesy Sultana Disaster Museum)
Worley said Kollath oversaw a major renovation of the Memphis museum last year for its 20th anniversary, created a program offering free field trips for all Title One schools in Tennessee and “has been a tireless supporter of free educational programming, curating more than just exhibits, but also having conversations surrounding the story of Stax, how history shaped it then, and continues to do so today.”

Most recently, Kollah was instrumental with the research required to tell the Stax story as part of a recently released HBO docuseries

Gene Salecker, Sultana author, collector and museum supporter, previously said he believes the big attraction at the new museum will be a mock-up of the forward part of the Sultana, which will include the steamboat’s boilers.

“Since the boilers were the main cause of the destruction of the Sultana, we are hoping to have a display on how the boilers worked and what went wrong,” he said, describing the overall museum experience as immersive. “We have tons of information and a great number of artifacts to put into each display.”

Museum officials say the exhibits will build off the full story of the Sultana with information about the importance of the river, the Confederate prisoner of war camps at Cahaba and Andersonville, the bribery and corruption that led to the overcrowding of the boat, the explosion and fire, and the creation of the Sultana Survivors Association. (At left, photo of 1891 reunion banner, courtesy of SHPS)

Fogleman said construction at the gymnasium-auditorium has slowed somewhat after the discovery of issues related to water leaks in the roof and elsewhere.

"Before interior work can continue a new roof will be required. Some of this was anticipated but some was not. Since federal grants are involved, it slows the process."

Previous Sultana coverage:

No comments:

Post a Comment