With all due respect to Shawn Levy’s 2006 comedy “Night at the Museum,” it doesn’t take talking mummies or fossilized dinosaur chase scenes to bring excitement to a museum after hours. There’s something remarkable about spending an evening at a museum, especially during a corporate meeting or a long-anticipated reunion or grand event.
Not only can guests often explore the galleries and exhibits before and during events, but in the South, they can often do so with a deviled egg and a cool glass of chardonnay in hand. Southern museums are packed with potential for small meetings and events; many offer a sense of place and history, as well as amazing collections of art and artifacts.
At these Southern museums, some of the top in the country, an on-site event coordinator works with planners to bring their dreams to life with exciting themes, delicious cuisines, and even world-class entertainment. From architecturally stunning art museums to a former writer’s home that now hosts writing circles and grand Gatsby-style events, here are some great options for your next Southern meeting or event.
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum
Jazz Age writers F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were known not only for their prophetic prose but also for their wild love affair. The two fell in love while Zelda was living in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, and were married upon the publishing of Scott’s first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” The couple maintained a gypsy lifestyle, living in cities around New York, France, Italy, Minnesota and Alabama. Their home in Montgomery was the last home the Fitzgeralds lived in as a family and is the last of the four extant homes that survived their travels around the world.
The home has been preserved as a museum. There the couple’s artifacts and legacy remain to tell the tale of their romantic and often heartbreaking life together. The museum is 8,500 square feet in total, with more than an acre of lawn space.
The museum is a unique venue to Montgomery and offers a step back into the Jazz Age, with galleries that house several of Zelda Fitzgerald’s original paintings and personal belongings, first editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and other ephemera from the late 1800s to the 1940s.
“We also have two Airbnb spaces that are great for one-on-one interviews,” said Sara Powell, executive director for the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. “We’ve hosted student interviews on behalf of Princeton University and are known as a local option for traveling guests.”
The museum rents out the space for events and meetings and specializes in cocktail events and mixers, workshops and panel discussions.
Marbles Kids Museum and Marbles Imax
Raleigh, North Carolina
Opened in 2007, the Marbles Kids Museum and Marbles Imax is a brainy nonprofit museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, that encourages kids and kids at heart to use their marbles as they discover the world within this two-story building. The museum was designed to be a hands-on and minds-on experience for children. Named after the wall that wraps around the building, filled with more than 1 million marbles that light up at night, the museum includes more than 14 exhibits that encourage children to use their imagination to discover and learn about everything from music and art to agriculture and engineering.
“People are often surprised that they can host meetings or events here,” said Jamie Bockover, the museum’s senior event coordinator.. “That just gives us the chance to wow them.”
Meetings and events at the museum take place in the Zanzibar Room, 3,500 square feet; the Venture Hall, 4,000 square feet inside the Imax movie theater; Calypso, a beautiful room that features stained-glass windows in a building adjacent to the main museum, 1,668 square feet; or Curiosity Square, 4,080 square feet. Meeting planners are equipped with in-house audiovisual options and tons of opportunities to provide a memorable experience for their guests through on-site entertainment, catering options and activities.
Along with access to the museum during regular operating hours, meeting groups at the museum also benefit from Marble’s convenient proximity to downtown Raleigh. A number of hotels, restaurants and shops are only a walk or a very short drive away.
Southeastern Railway Museum
Since 1970, visitors have flocked to the Southeastern Railway Museum to explore the fascinating legacy of transportation. The museum sits on 35 acres just outside of Atlanta in Duluth, Georgia, where more than 90 pieces of historic railroad equipment, buses and artifacts act as the centerpieces for this beloved museum.
“I have always been interested in history and, specifically, railroad history,” said Todd DeFeo, founder of the DeFeo Group and head of marketing for the Southeastern Railway Museum. “One of my hobbies is taking photos, so I enjoy spending time at the museum taking pictures. But more than that, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with volunteers at the museum. The museum’s volunteers have an incredible amount of passion. It is infectious. Having a bad day at the museum is impossible.”
The museum has several spaces available for meetings, approximately 3,800 square feet overall, including a theater-style audiovisual room that holds approximately 30 guests, an exhibit hall that seats up to 100 guests, a party car that seats 40 guests and a diner car that also seats 40 guests. In addition to the indoor spaces, the museum offers outside areas where tents and tables can be assembled for events such as company picnics and breakout sessions.
Before and after events, guests are able to uncover the colorful history that railroads and transportation played in shaping both Atlanta and north Georgia. Many of the historic railroad cars and locomotives on display are open for guests to climb aboard and explore. Among the rail cars on display is the Superb, a Pullman Company-built private car that President Warren G. Harding used during his 1923 Voyage of Understanding.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
A nearby spring and the bridge construction that plays out through the building’s design inspired the name for this internationally celebrated museum. Designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is as architecturally stunning as the works that line the halls. The Walton Family Foundation founded the museum in 2005 with a mission to provide a home to celebrate and honor the more than five centuries of American art that composes the collection as well as to celebrate the beauty of nature.
“It’s so delightful,” said Barbara Tillman, special events coordinator for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “It’s a surprise to drive in every morning. The beauty of our grounds is just stunning. I get to experience it every day, which I think is amazing.”
Along with a collection of more than 50,000 volumes of art reference material and nearly 1,500 objects spread throughout the collections, the museum features a series of walking trails that extend past sculpture gardens throughout the 120-acres of the park.
The museums meeting rooms are all used for different purposes, and the Great Hall acts as the ballroom for the venue; it is a very grand, very elegant space that can hold up to 450 guests. There is also a series of small boardrooms, and a beautiful library can act as a small meeting space with gorgeous views. All of the spaces include audiovisual components.
Military Aviation Museum
Virginia Beach, Virginia
The pride and joy of Virginia’s aviation heritage, the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, got its start as a passion project from aviation enthusiasts Gerald and Elain Yagen. A civilian pilot by training, Yagen fell in love with war birds and began collecting privately, opening the museum to the public more than 10 years ago. Today the museum houses more than 75 aircraft on-site, many of them still airworthy and all of them on display throughout the two hangars and more than 38,000 square feet of the museum.
“A lot of these aircraft have histories behind them, and our docents try to tell the story about the people who flew them,” said Mitchell Welch, events coordinator for the Military Aviation Museum. “The women that built these in WWII, the women that flew them to their assigned areas to keep the men in combat; we can talk history, and we can talk mechanical. It’s a terrific museum.”
The museum is located in the soy fields and cornfields of Virginia Beach, but is still only 20 minutes from the boardwalk, creating a rural venue that takes guests out of the hubbub of the city. That allows groups to focus on getting out of the office or out of the fast pace of life, and transports them back in time, if only for a night.
Groups can rent out either of the two hangars for larger events as well as any of the museum’s outdoor spaces, which are capable of hosting up to 6,000 guests. Welch and his team will assist in recommending caterers and performers, like the period performers that create a big-band atmosphere among static displays and large dance floors. Smaller meetings can take advantage of the upstairs mezzanine floor after museum hours or the conference room within the main building.