Renovated Scopes "Monkey" Trial museum opens Monday in Rhea County

The new Rhea Heritage and Scopes Trial Museum in Dayton, TN was designed and curated in partnership between the Rhea County Courthouse Restoration Task Force and a Nashville-based experiential design firm Advent.

The new Rhea Heritage and Scopes Trial Museum opened on Monday in Dayton, Tennessee.

The museum, located in the Rhea County Courthouse, celebrates the county's history and explores the famous trial.

Back in 1925, John Thomas Scopes was indicted for teaching evolution in a Tennessee classroom.

The trial pitted his defense attorney Clarence Darrow against prosecutor William Jennings Bryan.

Last year, a statue of Darrow was unveiled outside the courthouse.

Darrow ultimately lost the battle against Bryan, and Scopes was convicted.

However, the conviction was overturned in 1927 by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The renovations to the 43-year-old museum were first conceived at a public meeting in 2017.

Dr. Carroll Van West, the Tennessee State Historian and MTSU's Professor of Historic Preservation, assessed the courthouse and museum and emphasized the importance of heritage preservation and tourism.

A local task force created a roadmap of plans to preserve the physical structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Nashville-based firm Advent designed a modern museum space in the courthouse, which tells stories outside of the Scopes Trial as well, including Bryan College, African-American history, the Trail of Tears, Rhea County's military history and the county's industrial, agricultural, and musical heritage.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Monday morning.

Governor Bill Haslam was the special guest.

"History is not a battlefield. History is where we as a community come together," said Dr. Van West at the ceremony.

But some people in Rhea County, like June Griffin, aren't ready to do that.

She held a sign calling Darrow an "Enemy of God."

"There was no equality that day. We won. Christians won. The Bible won," said Griffin.

Task force member Tom Davis says he knows the evolution debate is still alive today and hopes the new museum will be a place where the dialogue can continue.

"This was not something that was going to be settled by a court challenge but in the hearts and minds and education of the people," said Davis.

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