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Alumna Shelley Ritter Accepts Award on Behalf of Miss. Delta Blues Museum from Michelle Obama

June 12, 2013


Millsaps College alumna Shelley Ritter recently accepted on behalf of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale the nation's highest honor conferred on museums and libraries. First Lady Michelle Obama presented the National Medal for Museum and Library Services during a May 8 ceremony at the White House.

Shelley Ritter (B.A., '88) accepts the National Medal for Museum and Library Services from First Lady Michelle Obama

Ritter serves as executive director of the Delta Blues Museum, which is one of this year's 10 recipients of the medal that is given by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The medal celebrates institutions that make a difference for individuals, families, and communities.

"The Delta Blues Museum is the oldest music museum in Mississippi, and we're only the third institution in the state to receive the award, which has been given since 1994," said Ritter, B.A. 1988.

The Mississippi Museum of Art received the medal in 2010; Betsy Bradley, B.A. 1984, is director of the museum. The Hancock County Library System received the award in 2001.

For the Delta Blues Museum, the award of the medal emphasizes the role the museum plays in not only its local community but the global music community as a whole. The museum is located in the Mississippi Delta - "the land where the blues began" - 90 miles south of Memphis.

"We anticipate this recognition will significantly enhance the Delta Blues Museum's ability to honor our many talented blues musicians, to educate and engage future generations in our local, living contribution to the music world, and to preserve the history and heritage of our community and its vast contribution to this important American art form," Ritter said.

The museum was established in 1979 at the Carnegie Public Library in Clarksdale when Sid Graves, B.A. 1968, was director of the library. "He recognized the need when visitors from across the world would come into the library with questions about the blues," Ritter said.

Re-organized as a stand-alone museum in 1999, the museum has since been housed in the historic Clarksdale freight depot. Ground Zero Blues Club, which is co-owned by Mayor-elect Bill Luckett, businessman Howard Stovall, and actor Morgan Freeman, opened next door in 2001.

Jim Herring, B.B.A. 1997, a trustee of the museum, said the award gives a nod to both the cultural preservation offered through the museum's exhibits on the Delta roots of the blues and to the museum-funded educational programming available to students of all ages. In weekly classes, future musicians learn the rudiments of the blues from local blues musicians, and have opportunities to learn from working professionals such as accomplished musician and longtime museum supporter Charlie Musselwhite.

The museum attracts 25,000 visitors annually, has nearly 10,000 subscribers for its Keeping the Beat newsletter, and provides year-round educational classes four days a week for students of all ages to learn about the history as well as how to play and sing the blues. The Museum's current Deeper Roots Campaign seeks $1.2 million for new and enhanced exhibits for Phase II of its expansion - which includes the new Muddy Waters Addition - enabling the museum to better preserve and display the history and work of Blues artists from the Mississippi Delta, and advancing the Museum's ability to tell stories that inspire and educate future generations about this important American art form.

Ritter became executive director of the museum, which has two other full-time employees and 10 part-time employees, in 2003. Among the employees is Lee Commer Pharr, exhibits and programs coordinator who attended Millsaps from 2003-2007.

Ritter majored in English at Millsaps with little thought given to becoming a museum director. She pursued a master's degree in southern studies at the University of Mississippi after meeting Bill Ferris, founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and an Ole Miss faculty member for 18 years.

Ritter said her English major has proven useful with grant applications and exhibit interpretations. "The interdisciplinary education I received at Millsaps works well with the storytelling we do," she said, mentioning the museum's current exhibits as well as the interactive ones they are currently planning.

The museum is among 50 finalists for a 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, given by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and its partner agencies, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ritter expects to know if the museum is selected as an award recipient by the end of June. If so, it would mean Ritter would attend another awards ceremony at the White House hosted by the First Lady.