By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday that Lois Riggins-Ezzell, the longtime director of the Tennessee State Museum, is retiring at the end of the year.
Riggins-Ezzell first became the museum’s director in 1981, when it had a staff of six people working in a basement of the War Memorial Building. She oversaw the museum’s transition into its current space in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, where it employs 42 employees and has an annual budget of $3.8 million, not counting private donations.
The retirement comes as the state is spending $120 million to build a new museum north of the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, with another $40 million being raised from private sources.
A state attorney general’s opinion issued last week found that the Tennessee State Museum Foundation that is raising the private money is not required to disclose its donors under the state’s open records laws.
Riggins-Ezzell had previously said she wanted to remain in charge of the museum until the new facility is complete in 2018, and raised eyebrows around the state Capitol when she declared to a reporter last year that “I am the museum.”
The governor’s office said in a release that Riggins-Ezzell will retain the title of “executive director emeritus” after her retirement, but did not say what responsibilities that positions will entail or whether it will be paid.
“Lois has given her heart and soul to telling Tennessee’s story and showcasing its rich history across the country and around the world,” Haslam said in a statement.
Riggins-Ezzell’s retirement came as a surprise to State Museum Commission members who found out about it from the governor’s press release, said member Victor Ashe, a former Knoxville mayor who also served as U.S. ambassador to Poland.
While a committee to oversee the Riggins-Ezzell’s successor has been in place for more than a year, no outside search firm has been hired to formalize the process, Ashe said.
“This should have been done over a year ago,” Ashe said. “If the University of Tennessee can choose a new chancellor in four to five months, why is it taking the museum a year and half to choose a new director for 40 employees?”
The Tennessee State Museum was forced to cancel plans to hold a traveling statewide exhibit on U.S. Sen Lamar Alexander’s service as governor amid criticism that it would have coincided with the Republican’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Riggins-Ezzell, who was named executive director of the museum when Alexander was governor in the 1980s, said at the time that political considerations never crossed her mind in planning the show.
Note: Here’s the press release from the governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Tom Smith, chairman of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, today announced that Lois Riggins-Ezzell, the executive director of the Tennessee State Museum, will retire December 31. Riggins-Ezzell has led the museum since 1981. At her retirement, she will retain the title of executive director emeritus.
“Lois has given her heart and soul to telling Tennessee’s story and showcasing its rich history across the country and around the world,” Haslam said. “We are grateful for her many years of service and all that she has done for the Tennessee State Museum and for our state.”
In her role, Riggins-Ezzell has had oversight of museum facilities including the Tennessee State Museum, the Military Branch of the museum which is housed in the War Memorial Building, and the Tennessee State Capitol. She has managed the museum’s $3.9 million operating budget and has served as an ex-officio member of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, the museum’s governing authority.
“Lois has had a distinguished career, and we salute her tireless efforts on behalf of the museum over these many years,” Smith said. “As we look to the museum’s future, we build on the foundation of the museum’s past, and Lois has been such an important part of that. I am particularly pleased that Lois will retain the title of Executive Director Emeritus, recognizing her long and invaluable service to the Museum and the citizens of Tennessee.”
Riggins-Ezzell received her undergraduate degree at Belmont College and pursued graduate work at Western Kentucky State University.
“It has been an honor and privilege to spend such a large part of my professional career with the Tennessee State Museum,” Riggins-Ezzell said. “I am extremely excited about the museum’s future and am proud of the foundation we’ve built for its success for decades to come. I look forward to supporting ongoing efforts to get the new museum up and running, particularly as it relates to the on-going fund raising effort which Governor Haslam is leading.”
During her career, she has served as an educator, historic site interpreter, curator, and public administrator and was one of five national grant recipients of a one-year sabbatical in museum studies at George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institute.
“Having known Mrs. Riggins-Ezzell and worked with her for over 40 years, I can attest to the fact, without any qualification, that she has created the foundation on which the new museum will stand and at the same time, with a minimal budget, acquired on behalf of all the people of the state of Tennessee one of the greatest collection of artifacts owned by any state museum to honor our state’s heritage,” former state senator Douglas Henry, said.
ABOUT THE TENNESSEE STATE MUSEUM
The Tennessee State Museum was established by law in 1937 “to bring together the various collections of articles, specimens, and relics now owned by the State under one divisional head,” and “to provide for a transfer of exhibits wherever they may be.”
Today, the Tennessee State Museum is housed in the James K. Polk building in downtown Nashville, where it has been for nearly 35 years. Gov. Bill Haslam proposed and the Tennessee General Assembly approved $120 million in the FY-2015-16 budget to build a new home for the Tennessee State Museum on the Bicentennial Mall to maximize the state’s rich history by creating a state-of-the-art educational asset and tourist attraction for the state. The governor also announced that $40 million would be raised in private funds for the project.
A 140,000 square foot facility is being built on the northwest corner of the Bicentennial Mall at the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Jefferson Street to tell Tennessee’s story in a way that the museum is unable to do in its current and outdated location by showcasing one-of-a-kind artifacts, art and historical documents in an interactive and engaging way.