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Hattiesburg Convention Commission Receives Two Awards at the Mississippi Governor’s Conference on Tourism

October 09, 2023

Hattiesburg, MS (October 6, 2023) FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – The Hattiesburg Convention Commission received two awards today from the Mississippi Tourism Commission during the Mississippi Governor’s Conference on Tourism held in Meridian.

The African American Military History Museum received the Tourism Partnership of the Year Award for its collaborative effort to host a reception and special viewing of the Hollywood film, Devotion, which tells the story of Hattiesburg native, Jesse Leroy Brown, the first African American Naval Aviator.

The African American Military History Museum in partnership with the Historic Saenger Theater, the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum, Sony Pictures and Black Label Media were able to bring a bit of Hollywood to Mississippi and a bit of Mississippi and its long tradition of honor, sacrifice and service to our nation.  Hosting a Devotion movie premiere in Hattiesburg was an example of the powerful impact of partnerships that brought greater light to the heroes of Mississippi and the United States.

“Through the incredible leadership of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission and collaboration with our administration, Black Label Media (Sony) and the Armed Forces Museum, the evening’s events created a night to remember, but it was more than that,” said Hattiesburg Mayor, Toby Barker.  “It was a pivotal moment in telling a heroic story of a Hattiesburg native.”

The two-part event was held on December 3, 2022, the anniversary-eve of Ensign Brown’s heroic actions.  The first event was a reception held at the African American Military History Museum that connected the stars of Devotion: Jonathan Majors, Glenn Powell, and Christina Jackson, as well as film director J.D. Dillard and producer Rachel Smith with the Brown and Hudner families.  Jesse Brown’s daughter, Pamela Knight of Hattiesburg, and Thomas Hudner III of Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Hudner, Jr., along with the film stars, director and producer were presented keys to the City of Hattiesburg by Mayor Toby Barker. The event partners representatives and numerous special guests toured the museum to see the Jesse L. Brown exhibit, visit with the families, and socialize with local and state dignitaries.

The second event of the evening, a red-carpet premiere of the film at the Historic Saenger Theater, opened to a full house.  The Hollywood stars each introduced the film with comments about what filming and learning about the national hero, Jesse LeRoy Brown, meant to them.  Thomas Hudner III shared how much his father talked about Jesse and Daisy, wife of Jesse, and what an impact his father’s experiences had on his life.

“Because of the incredible spirit and work of our partners, both local and national, we were all able to pull together a seamless celebration that paid homage to our hometown hero,” said Latoya Norman, Director of Museums for the Hattiesburg Convention Commission.

“Stories are important,” said Barker.  “Every city has them, but stories only live on when they are told.”  “They depend on each generation taking up the mantle and bearing the responsibility of passing those stories on to the next generation. Through the collaboration and partnership of many on this incredible night, we were able to do just that,” continued Barker.

About the evening Pamela Knight, Ensign Brown’s Daughter said, “I was very appreciative of the collaboration between all of the partners to honor my father in this way.”  “I was very impressed with how well the event was executed, and my family is appreciative for the outstanding presentation that was showcased that evening,” continued Knight.

The second award presented to the Hattiesburg Convention Commission was the Mississippi Tourism Association’s Community Volunteer of the Year Award, which was presented to Vicki Tayor for her work with the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum.  “The award is for a person that gives freely of their personal time to help attract visitors to their community, which truly exemplifies Vicki,” said Vanessa Molden, Museum Operations & Education Supervisor for the Sixth Street Museum District, who nominated Vicki for the award.

Vicki’s work with the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum began in March of 2020, when COVID-19 caused the closure of the Historic Saenger Theater in downtown Hattiesburg.  As the lockdown continued into the summer, Vicki Taylor volunteered to spearhead a program involving the staff of the theater and its managing agency, the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, to create a way for people to escape the isolation of health-related restrictions and enjoy “surprise and delight” just as they might at a theater performance.  With a scant $800 at their disposal, they got to work converting a boarded-up window in a rear storeroom of the theater into a small museum…a pocket museum.

Vicki’s first exhibition was her husband’s collection of more than 115 unique Swiss Army (pocket) knives, which seemed a fitting start to a “pocket” (small) museum.  No announcement was made about the museum, but the “Hattiesburg Pocket Museum” sign hung silently in the alley, beckoning those who dared to venture down the alley.  And venture they did!  In September the exhibit changed to 100 different rubber ducks and Sesame Street’s Ernie signing the “Rubber Ducky” song in a bathtub in the museum window.  That Labor Day weekend saw almost 3,000 people come find the museum as the word was spreading about this mysterious window museum in a dark alley.

Along the way media coverage brought more and more attention to this hidden museum in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  Every month the exhibit had to change, and so Vicki searched far and wide for unique collections that could be displayed.  With each display more and more people found the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum.  In the first year, over 130,000 people came to see the museum.

Along with planning exhibits up to a year in advance, contacting exhibitors around the world (even Croatia and Ukraine), shipping out past exhibits, cataloging upcoming exhibits and collaborating with artists, Vicki has created and installed the hundreds of miniature vignettes hidden in cracks, crevices, atop utility boxes and other locations in the alley.

Over the past three years, Vicki has created and added new elements to the alley including the Hattiesburg Pocket Theater (a one-person viewing port that shows a film that compliments the Pocket Museum’s exhibit), the Hattiesburg Pocket Gallery (a repurposed newspaper stand that serves as a free art exchange for the community), the Hattiesburg Pocket Watch (a digital display that announces the time through literary passages), and Milo’s Sky-High Gallery (an overhead gallery space to hang artwork).  Special events have become an important part of the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum’s community outreach and include the Great Downtown Duck Hunt, Storywalk, Night of the Marauding Pirates, December Snowfall, and Cinco de Milo just to name a few.

There are a myriad of aspects to growing the alley and increasing its visitation, but a large part of her time is spent cleaning up the alley, visiting with guests, answering questions about exhibits, and hosting field trip groups.  Spending between 25 – 30 hours per week looking after the Museum and Alley, Vicki has donated more than 4,500 hours of service to this single project.

The steady stream of visitors who go out of their way to “find” the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum increases every month and has seen tourists from Iceland, South Africa, Europe, South America and all 50 states.  From its silent startup in August 2020, the annual alley visitation has increased to more than 180,000 visitors per year.

It is the work that Vicki Taylor has done to create a unique attraction for Mississippi and her tireless dedication to growing the museum and the alley as a tourist draw that has made her the 2023 Mississippi Tourism Association Community Volunteer of the Year.

Because of Vicki’s dedication and never-ending work, the Pocket Alley has been broadly featured in news outlets around the globe and has received the 2022 American Planning Association’s “Great Public Space Award” and the 2023 Mississippi Municipal League’s “Best Overall” Excellence Award.

“I am so proud that Vicki’s tireless work has been recognized by the MTA,” said Rick Taylor, Executive Director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission and Vicki’s husband.  “Her commitment to the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum is more than that of a volunteer, and she deserves such thanks for her commitment to making this space come alive and continue to be a place of surprise and delight for guests.”