Walking through downtown Hattiesburg, Mississippi, you’ll see a collection of locally owned shops and restaurants—including those featured on HGTV’s Home Town, which films in nearby Laurel. It seems like any other Southern town, with plaza lights strung between buildings to sparkle at night. But if you look closer, you might also find the tiniest, most interesting museum collection in the U.S.
After months spent indoors during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hattiesburg Convention Commission was looking for a way to bring art to people in a safe way. Theaters and museums were still closed; with $800 to spend, the team took over a boarded-up window on the back side of the Saenger Theatre that had been forgotten for decades. A member of the commission used his cabinet-building skills to create a display window. And just like that, the city’s newest museum was built.
“When we opened the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum in August of 2020, we told no one. We gave out no address and had no phone number. Slowly, by word of mouth, but especially social media, pictures and questions began to emerge,” says Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission. “Even though we still refused to give out our address, technology and Google have given us away.”
It’s true that there isn’t an address to use for the museum. A Google Maps search gets you to an adjacent street, but visitors have to find the right alley themselves, which is part of the fun. On busy weekends, you might be able to follow the crowds or ask someone, similar to a speakeasy.
1,000 seats and air conditioning
Hattiesburg, located 2 hours northeast of New Orleans, was founded in 1882 by Captain William H. Hardy, and named for his wife Hattie. Set in the heart of the longleaf pine forests, the city became a hub for the lumber industry, especially when the railroad was introduced to make transportation easier.
The area continued to grow in size. In 1929, the Saenger Theatre opened as a nearly 1,000-seat movie palace with a stage and balcony. It was part of a chain of theaters with locations in New Orleans and Mobile and originally screened silent movies. Music was played through the 778-pipe Robert Morton Pipe Organ and it was one of the first places in the city to have air conditioning.
The theater became a gathering place for the community, where families could go when everything else was closed on Sunday. There were pre-show cartoons and singalongs, along with special nights with door prizes. As with so many other early theaters, the 1960s led to the Saenger’s closure. The city gained ownership and restored it over the years, reopening in the 1980s. Since then, the space has hosted everything from classical music concerts to comedy shows and plays. Before the pandemic, 2019 was the best year for the theater financially.
Walking into the alley today, I don’t know where to look because there are so many things that demand my attention. The first thing I notice is the purple door, with the unmistakable yellow frame from the show Friends, painted by local artist Lissa Ortego.
The museum itself, made up of the window with shelves, is only one part of the Pocket Museum experience. There’s a theater related to each month’s exhibit, created with a modified ViewMaster embedded into the wall. (I watch a reel of the 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie.) The art gallery, which opened in September, was created in a former newspaper stand; visitors can take a piece of art or submit their own. Miniature “patrons” are placed inside to admire the work.
The alley is full of QR codes visitors can scan with their phones to get more information and submit their own pieces for exhibition, along with images of the museum’s mascot: a pint-sized mouse named Milo.
Large-scale murals, including one by Kelsey Montague, take up an entire parking deck wall, and mini model dioramas tucked into bricks and atop utility boxes. You might need to walk through more than once, just to see it all.
Out of the ordinary
The first exhibit showcased more than 100 Swiss Army pocket knives. Since then, the exhibits have varied wildly from rubber ducks and serial killers to Disney memorabilia. They might be offbeat collections, an unusual form of artwork, or pieces from another museum. The only real requirement is that the items be small enough to fit in the window.
“Mostly, the criteria is ‘Does this proposed exhibit interest us? Is it novel? Unusual? Something that people would not normally see? Does it evoke conversation, questions, curiosity? Is it out of the ordinary?’” says Taylor.
The exhibits change at night on the last day of every month, with twelve scheduled throughout the year. Since opening, the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum has had 150,000 visitors, both tourists and locals alike. Some read about the museum online while others hear about it through word of mouth. The exhibits themselves are suggested, and often supplied, by the community.
“The community has taken a great liking to the Pocket Museum and the alley as a whole,” Taylor says. “Many people come multiple times per month, bringing family and out-of-town friends. The museum traffic is surprising even in rainstorms and bitter temperatures, with many braving the elements to check out the new exhibits.”
The Pocket Museum continues to expand with more exhibits and full community support. X-Files actor and Hattiesburg resident Gary Grubbs was at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Pocket Theater. The Hattiesburg Convention Commission also plans to add murals and has exhibits planned through the rest of this year.
If it’s your first time visiting the Pocket Museum, chances are it won’t be your last. You never know what’s going to be added next.