Waterfowl hunters are kindred spirits. We share a love for crisp sunrises, wet dogs, and skies filled with ducks and geese on the wing.
We also are conservationists. Our dollars have made duck and goose hunting what it is today. At the head of this effort is an organization devoted not only to habitat restoration but to education, preservation, and the continuation of our beloved sport. Ducks Unlimited began with the vision that the best days of waterfowl hunting were not behind us but were still to come. The organization has built upon its successes and now there is a tribute to what it has accomplished within a forgotten building transformed into a sporting destination.
Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited Waterfowling Heritage Center located inside the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee.
The Pyramid overlooks the Mississippi River, and is a Memphis landmark originally built for sporting events and concerts. People crossing the bridge from Arkansas can see it miles away. It was a thriving venue for many years but had lain dormant since 2004. Bass Pro Shops and the city of Memphis spent years in negotiations until a deal was reached in June 2010, and a major outdoor lifestyle destination was born. Since the grand opening in April 2015, sportsmen and tourists alike have flowed through the doors and into a world where alligators, fish and ducks live among throngs of shoppers.
Two years ago, Heritage Center manager Katie Burke was working for a museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her master’s degree in museum studies had landed her the job and she was busy caring for the artifacts in her charge. Then she was approached about a unique position far from home.
“About a year and a half ago I was contacted by Bass Pro for a job opportunity running a unique space devoted to Ducks Unlimited within their Pyramid facility,” Burke said. “As a lifelong duck hunter, it was almost too good to be true. Being able to combine my love for waterfowl hunting with my passion for antiquities is my dream job. Well dreams can come true so here I am in Memphis.”
Once Burke had the job she was consulted from Day One on the layout of the center. As construction was completed she and her staff then tackled the job of ensuring the objects were properly placed and cared for.
The center occupies 4,600 square feet of space on the second floor and there are no current plans for expansion. There will be rotating exhibits however.
“The space will not change but we will change up what is shown in it,” Burke said. “Beginning in August of 2016 we will be removing items and replacing them with others. Some current inventory will remain in place but the majority will be different. This way there will always be something new to see at the Waterfowling Heritage Center, a reason to come back for folks who have already been there.”
More than 1,000 items are on display. Most are donated by Ducks Unlimited, but some are on loan through private donation.
One of the most exciting aspects of Burke’s job is educating the public on waterfowl, especially young children. “We are heavily involved with school groups who take field trips to the center,” she said. “Our plan is to continue to grow these programs, not only for kids but for adults and families as well. We have started a program recently to teach kids about how ducks communicate with each other. Then they are taught how to use a duck call. You can’t believe the amount of noise a bunch of six year olds can make.”
Creating a heritage center of this quality takes the efforts of many individuals.
“Several of us were given rooms to design two years ago when we started on the project,” said James Powell, Ducks Unlimited communications director. “So a lot of thought went into every facet of choosing how the layout would function. We were basically given a blank space to fill. It was a lot of work but the end result was worth every second of it.”
Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall explained how the center came to be through the generosity of Johnny Morris and Bass Pro Shops.
“Johnny has been an ardent supporter of DU for decades. But he stepped up his commitment to helping our organization,” Hall said. “Bass Pro sponsors Tony Stewart’s race car and Johnny decided to put DU logs on the bumpers. He did that for us free of charge. Then when the design for the Pyramid was being laid out, he donated the space to DU to use as long as we produced a quality venue. I’ll tell you this as well; when you work with Johnny you better have a seat belt on.
“We went to work immediately on the project and now just three years later we have hundreds of people touring the facility daily.”
It is important to note that the center is not a museum but an interactive educational location where young and old alike can learn more about conservation.
“We decided to call it the Ducks Unlimited Heritage Center because educating the public on the history and continuation of wetlands conservation is our main goal,” Hall said. “Sure, there are some museum quality pieces there to observe and enjoy. But it is not what the place is about.”
A feature of the center is interactive stations where children can press a button and hear the sound of a particular bird or waterfowl.
“These days you need to educate using equipment that will capture kids’ attention quickly. Our stations are set up to where all you need to do is push a button to explore the world of nature,” Hall said.
While the center emphasizes the waterfowl hunter as a conservationist, Hall wants to tell the DU story to the public in general.
“You don’t have to be a hunter to want to conserve our natural resources,” he said. “We want every visitor to come away with the knowledge that Ducks Unlimited is working diligently with private donations to preserve what we have and create more habitat in the future. We spend 80 cents of every dollar we receive directly on wildlife conservation and you don’t need to be a hunter to see the benefits of that.”
Graceland is a Memphis icon, the home of Elvis Presley and a shrine to music fans around the world. Johnny Morris took another piece of the city and transformed it into a destination for lovers of the outdoors.
A look inside Graceland will reveal the history of a man and his passions. Look closer into the Pyramid and you will find the history of waterfowl conservation and the ongoing fight to ensure people in the future will have what we enjoy now and have enjoyed in the past.