Chattanooga's history is a microcosm of the American story: controversial; violent; filled with ambitious leaders, tremendous successes and abject failures.
And as city leaders continue to plan for a technology-based thriving future for Chattanooga, the lessons of the past serve as reminders of how far we've come. Those history lessons, when viewed in hindsight, can help determine the best path to where we're going.
Picnooga, an online history organization, thinks Chattanooga's history is worth preserving.
In just a few years, collectors with the organization have gathered more than 800 photographs, negatives and historical papers. They've also promoted the donation of residents' personal collections—photos, significant items, etc.—to the Chattanooga History Center and Picnooga collections.
But now, with the downsizing and uncertainty of the planned Chattanooga History Center, Picnooga founder David Moon says he is ready to do "whatever it takes" to continue to preserve Chattanooga's history.
After a failure to partner with local and state libraries, Moon has started the process of establishing nonprofit status and plans to secure a brick-and-mortar location for a future archive.
If successful, this location could also serve as a Picnooga version of a Chattanooga history museum.
"Since the Civil War, history has been an important driving force in the Chattanooga economy," Moon said. "And although that has somewhat fallen by the wayside, the local interest in history remains high, and there is a huge gap by not offering an interpretive public space for Chattanooga's past."
Moon envisions a working museum highlighting historical images as main exhibits and original artifacts supplementing the photos.
A "flexible space" would be available for visiting exhibits, rotating themes and educational programs; and other private, institutional collections would attract repeat attendees.
Ticket sales would help sustain the museum, but the group could also seek additional income from outside services: libraries, museums, historical societies, corporate and private collectors.
Visitors would follow a visual timeline of Chattanooga's history using newly discovered or rarely seen images from the Picnooga collection. Guests would also be allowed to view archivists through a glass wall as they scan, research and catalog Chattanooga's history.
"By showing behind the scenes, we're creating excitement and a deeper level of appreciation for historical preservation that has been a driving force in our collecting efforts and community engagement," Moon said.
The next steps
Preserving and aggregating history has been a labor of love for Picnooga up to this point. Moon said they've taken crowdsourcing as far as possible, and growth and sustainability are only possible with funding.
Although large-cap investors in Chattanooga may be soured by the idea of a formal history center at this point, Moon maintains that enough people still believe in the idea and could help make it a reality.
Moon is hoping to hear from "champions" of local history—people who could help see the project to completion by offering substantial funding.
"To jump ahead, we'll need better options or more funding than just asking Chattanoogans to buy T-shirts," he said. "I trust the people on board, and we're at the point where I'm comfortable the organization could go wherever it needs to go."
The primary need for Picnooga moving forward, according to Moon, is a location to help preserve and archive the growing collection. A museum component would be an extension of that location, wherever it may eventually be. Picnooga is actively searching for a suitable downtown location.
Regardless, Moon said Picnooga will continue to focus on its mission to gather and disseminate local history across social media.
"As long as social media is around, it will always be our focus," he said. "As far as growth, I'm surprised every month. Chattanoogans love their history more than other cities, even without a history center."
Picnooga was recently featured on Mashable.com, and the collection is regularly seen on local newscasts, television productions, documentaries, magazines and more. The organization's archives have been shared by Rock City, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, and the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Recently, Picnooga acquired a collection of more than 400 glass plate negatives depicting life in the early 1900s in Chattanooga. A series of photographs from the collection has been previously released by Nooga.com. Click here and here for more stories on this collection.