The Owners of the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum in Mississippi Don’t Want You to Find it
During a global pandemic, cultural leaders in Mississippi find a way to deliver creative experiences to locals and tourists alike.
Curious wanderers exploring downtown Hattiesburg, in Mississippi, beware: the smallest museum in the state—perhaps, in the country—is hiding in plain sight. Tucked in a nondescript alley beside the currently shuttered historic Saenger movie theater, the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum is a 48×36 inches window opening that frames four shelves, each one 12 inches deep and 36 inches wide, filled with a smorgasbord of objects coalescing into a monthly-rotating theme that tends to be just as curious as the origins of the window itself.
“Our mission is to bring people into downtown Hattiesburg and be an economic catalyst,” explains Rick Taylor, the executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, the state body dedicated to the development of tourism-related facilities meant to draw new revenues to the local community. Once COVID-19 hit, two of the Commission’s most lucrative projects—the Hattiesburg Zoo and the Saenger theater—had to abruptly shut down and the organization was forced to find new and creative ways to compel folks to leave their homes and safely head downtown once more.
“We went to the side of the Saenger and [noticed] a big board that had been there for 40 years,” recalls Taylor. “We pulled it off and realized it was a window opening so we got a chef from the convention center […] to make us a cabinet, a glass company to put some security glass on it and we re-opened a window that hadn’t been open in four decades.”
The Pocket Museum has become one of the most creatively adept cultural propositions in an era defined by the near total lack of physical proximity.
The Pocket Museum has become one of the most creatively adept cultural propositions in an era defined by the near total lack of physical proximity. Visitors don’t need to purchase tickets or even step inside an actual space to revel in the experience. All they really need to do is walk by—an activity permissible even under social distancing guidelines. Bonus points: The window is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. According to Taylor, traffic is visible through the security cameras almost all day. “The quietest time to visit is between 3am and 4:30am,” he reveals.
As eclectically whimsical and odd as the space is, it still must furnish interesting exhibits to retain the public’s attention. To kick things off in August, the opening month, the staff looked for potential exhibit themes amongst themselves.
“We have a ton of stuff and asked who has got what? Who collects stuff?” recalls Taylor. Month one’s result: a collection of Swiss Army knives that belonged to one of the employees. Next up: a rubber duck exhibit composed of objects left over from a pretty popular Easter “rubber duck scavenger hunt” mounted by the local zoo annually. On Halloween, the staff worked on a showcase focusing on the tools of the trade of serial killers. “We collected things we thought serial killers would use, including the Green River Killer, the Zodiac Killer, Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter.”
To set up the window, the commission shelled out a relatively modest $800, which came directly from the fund dedicated to the theater’s projects. The most expensive portion of the feat was the $300 signage found right outside the space, which boasts a QR code that leads scanners to a page filled with instructions about how to pitch an exhibit to the staff.
“Don’t send us your grandmother’s Christmas village,” says Taylor half-jokingly. “But, if you collect dentures from across the world you might want to talk to us.”
Collections up for consideration must include 30-50 items available for loan to the museum for 60 days. Most importantly, they must strike the employees’ fancy. “Don’t send us your grandmother’s Christmas village,” says Taylor half-jokingly. “But, if you collect dentures from across the world you might want to talk to us.”
Although cagey about upcoming shows, the director shares details regarding some of the submissions they’ve received, including an assembly of gourd dioramas and a collection of African American league baseball cards. As of now, the museum’s exhibition calendar is filled through December of next year—a pretty shocking fact given the size of the space and the staff’s reluctance to reveal the window’s location.
Speaking of secrecy: Taylor does find the clandestine nature of the project to be its biggest draw. “We had a few people from out of town asking us about the address,” recalls the director. “And our response is basically no. We want someone to errantly walk down the alley and go, oh my! There’s a museum there!” Although the alley doesn’t really have an address, Taylor does acknowledge that, as more and more visitors post from the location, the Google marker is inching “closer and closer” to the exact spot where the window sits.
Despite the stealthiness, 20,000 people have visited the Pocket Museum since it first opened in August. By dint of observation, Taylor estimates that 80% of patrons are local and 20% are out-of-towners brought to the window by people from the area. Cleverly, the rotating nature of the exhibition schedule all but guarantees the return of customers on a monthly basis.
As successful as the project has been, Taylor is adamant that the aim of his commission—and, therefore, that of the Pocket Museum—is to revitalize downtown Hattiesburg, especially in light of the current pandemic. “Our goal with the whole alley is to create this kind of potpourri of whimsical things that hopefully you will love or hate but, one way or another, you will be moved emotionally by and you’ll want to come see,” he says. Has the project worked? According to Taylor, yes—and then some. “One of the things that we’ve seen, which is part of the intent, is that people are going into downtown and asking businesses about the address—[most of the time] spending money in the stores while doing so,” he explains.
Local businesses’ enthusiasm also involves the scope of the commission’s project rubric. In addition to the Pocket Museum, the staff has been able to re-open the zoo while working on a slew of other programs, including drive-in movie theater nights, a biking pathway built on an old rail line and several other museums which are primarily dedicated to the African American experience.
As of now, the staff plans to stay open through the pandemic and beyond and Taylor admits that the Pocket Museum likely owes part of its success to the current state of affairs. “I do believe we have been the beneficiary of extraordinary pent-up demand, at least during the kick-off to this” he says. “I hope and believe we’ve established a name for ourselves and a sort of brand and an experience expectation that will go on after this. The burden falls on us to host events that continue to have value even when there are other [recreational] options.”
As for the enduring effects of the pandemic, Taylor believes that the health care-related guidelines that have become the modus operandi in the last few months—sanitizer, cleaning procedures, upgraded ventilation systems—are here to stay. “We ended up buying a fairly large number of dry hydrogen peroxide devices that we never thought about before,” he reveals. “After doing our research on them, we discovered that they probably would have helped us pre-COVID as well.”
The director’s outlook likely stems from his dealings with yet another tragedy not too long ago, hurricane Katrina. “Because of Katrina, because of the power, food, water, ice shortages [we experienced], we are all prepared now to deal with [something similar],” he says. “I think the same will be true here. We are now very alert and careful and have systems in place.”
Could the local and federal government potentially help stave off future disasters? Perhaps. “I think the government needs to look at the people that have successfully operated these cultural facilities and work with them to understand how they did it,” he advances. “There are some blanket rules that look good on paper but may not pan out exactly how politicians want so you’ve got to find a happy medium.” After all, he says, “You learn through the hard things. You remember those.”
Anna Rahmanan is a writer, editor, and producer living in New York, Anna Ben Yehuda is the current National Digital Content Editor at Time Out. Her work has been published by Gotham, Hamptons, Us Weekly, Long Island Pulse, Thought Catalog, and Martha Stewart, among others. Visit her at annabenyehuda.com
All photos courtesy of, and copyright by, the Pocket Museum.