5 museums that show the quirky side of Memphis

Sure, you know all about Memphis blues, brews, and barbecues; about the Mighty Mississippi River and Graceland. What you probably don't know is that Memphis is a great museum city, and not just for its most well-known museums dedicated to those most iconic Memphian elements noted above. What about the lesser-known museums, the unusual and appealingly quirky museums that provide a peek into different perspectives of the city that is tagged, variously, as Blues City, The Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll, The Barbecue Capital of the World, Bluff City?

I discovered one of Bluff City's little-known but exquisite jewels on a trip there a few years back. The Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art has a gorgeous collection of items that fire your imagination and pique your mystique. I'd never seen anything quite like the gloriously orangey-red cinnabar cabinet of Qing Dynasty China origin or the delicately ornate silver and gold-plated silver miniatures of synagogues that I found there. I've never seen anything like them since.

Bill Hickerson, executive director of the West Tennessee Regional Art Center in Humboldt, Tennessee, said that the Tennessee Association of Museums held its annual state conference in Memphis in recent years and several committee members visited some of the smaller museums in preparation for the event.

"In the months leading up to the conference, several committee members had a great time visiting and sharing information about some of the less well-known museums," said Hickerson. "At the Fire Museum, for example, the staff was friendly and gracious, and there were great exhibits. What attendees from across the state talked about most, however, was the "Fire Room."

Fire up your imagination at these unusual museums in Memphis.

The Pink Palace Museum

You might want to start your quirky Memphis museum tour with the one farthest out from downtown, which also happens to be the biggest one – The Pink Palace Museum. About six miles out Central Avenue, west of downtown, the Pink Palace Museum is housed in a striking mansion made with a pink Georgian marble façade built in the 1920s for Clarence Saunders, the entrepreneur who founded the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain. Inside you'll find a nostalgic replica of the first Piggly Wiggly in the country. The Pink Palace Museum's permanent interactive exhibits also include the Cultural History of the Mid-South, Natural History of the Mid-South, and various exhibits on Memphis music, the changing roles of women, colorful murals, and more. The temporary exhibit "Scenes of the Dinosaurs" opens July 2. Also at the Palace are The Sharpe Planetarium and the CTI 3-D Giant Theater. Be sure to check online for free summer trial memberships that the Pink Palace sometimes offers.

Pink Palace Museum, 3050 Central Ave., Memphis, Tenn., 901-636-2362

ExploreBelz Museum of Asian & Judaic Art

The rest of the museums highlighted here are all in the heart of downtown Memphis, most within a mile of each other. The Belz Museum of Asian & Judaic Art is truly a unique repository for a surprising mix of cultural art and artifacts – more than 900 objects in all. The Asian artistry exhibited here is about one-third jade pieces, the oldest a dragon-turtle composite piece dating back 2,500 years. Most of the jade art originates, however, from the Qing dynasty in China and dates between 1644 until 1911. The exquisitely carved jade pieces include a five-section pagoda with a fluted top, a jade dragon on an imperial armchair, an intricate "Buddha in a Mountain" decorative carving and more. But the museum pieces include work in ivory, coral, rose quartz, tiger eye, cloisonne, cinnabar, Mongolian silver, as well. The Judaic art space is smaller, but no less exceptional. Here you'll find contemporary bronze panels that illustrate events from the Bible, a silver menorah with lapis stones, an ornate silver and gold-plated silver miniature of the Synagogue of Szolnok, Hungary, and similar artistic expressions. All the museum's offerings are stunningly beautiful and moving and not at all what you'd expect to find in Memphis.

Belz Museum of Asian & Judaic Art, 119 South Main St., Memphis, 901-523-2787, www.belzmuseum.org

Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange

What you probably would expect to find in Memphis, as a Southern state sitting beside the major thoroughfare that is the Mississippi River, is a museum dedicated to cotton. Beginning in the mid-1840s, riverboats coming down The Mighty Mississippi and through were loaded with cotton and a great many of them were coming into or going out from Memphis. Bluff City was historically deemed the "Biggest Inland Cotton Market in the World." The Memphis Cotton Exchange was where cotton traders bought and sold their fluffy stuff. The historic building has been restored to its 1930s heyday appearance as the Cotton Museum, with a huge chalk trading board sitting high atop the original office space, a line of phone booths that today offer informative and entertaining videos telling the story of cotton production from various angles, and the facility's main floor filled with photo and artifact showcases. The "Exploration Hall" explores the changing technologies of cotton production.

Cotton Museum, 65 Union Ave., Memphis, 901-531-7826, http://memphiscottonmuseum.org

Fire Museum of Memphis

Memphis' Fire Engine House No. 1 is an engaging site holding loads of historic fire department equipment and lore. The museum tells the history of the Memphis Fire Department during the era of horse-drawn fire equipment from the mid-1800s to around 1919, all the way to contemporary times. There is a wonderful array of things inside – various kinds of historic fire helmets, fire alarms, fire extinguishers reproductions of antique cast-iron firetruck toys, and more. Also on hand is an 1897 Hale Water Tower, a precursor of the aerial fire truck; a 1910 horse-drawn steam pumper, a 1912 motorized fire engine, and more. Upstairs are three rooms dedicated to educating visitors about fire safety, including the infamous "Fire Room."

Fire Museum of Memphis, Fire Engine House No. 1, 118 Adams Ave., 901-636-5650, www.firemuseum.com

Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum

This Memphis homage to its heritage as a train and trolley transportation center is small but delightful. There are educational murals, railroad switching lights, an old baggage cart with luggage and memorabilia, and other paeans to the glories of the locomotives and trolley cars of yesteryear. Several model trains glide upon their narrow tracks, curving around their lovingly recreated landscapes. It's a treat for anyone enamored of trains and trolleys. Just be aware that it has operating hours limited to the late-morning and afternoons of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum, 545 South Main, Suite 121, Memphis, 901-590-3099, http://mrtm.org