The Hattiesburg Pocket Museum hides in the heart of downtown Hattiesburg, nestled among the town’s local restaurants, bookstores and antique shops. Strings of lights hang above the alley behind the historic Saenger Theater, highlighting a row of umbrella-embellished picnic tables and a refurbished newspaper stand filled with 4-by-6-inch artwork.
The main attraction of the alley is the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum itself, a once-boarded-up window to one of the Saenger Theater’s many storerooms that now houses an intricate collection of novelties small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
Milo, a 2-inch-tall mouse and the museum’s honorary curator, sits in the window among his collection of strange, pocket-sized baubles. These objects—the weird, the interesting, the small—are hidden all around the alley as well, with miniscule figurines perched on electrical boxes, door frames and even the grout in between the alley’s rustic brickwork. Tourists and locals alike roam with wonder around the alley, searching for the secrets hidden within the exhibits.
The Hattiesburg Convention Commission launched the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum in March 2020 as a way to stay active amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “All of our facilities were closed,” Rick Taylor, executive director of the HCC, says. “Our employees were calling in and asking, ‘What can we do?’”
Recognizing that alleys are often overlooked during city planning, the HCC decided to make use of the available real estate they provide, which led to the launch of the pocket museum in downtown Hattiesburg. “A lot of people don’t realize that alleys and streets make up 80% of the public land that cities own. It’s an underused area,” Taylor says.
“What we did was take a window out of an old storeroom that was in the back of the Saenger, and for a grand total of $800, we bought a sign, fixed all the boards and replaced the glass,” he adds.
The HCC also refurbished an antique newspaper stand into the Pocket Gallery, an exhibit of community-sourced art where visitors can take miniature artworks they enjoy and leave their own behind. The Pocket Gallery houses several easels where artists can display their artworks, but encourages artists to leave art of any medium, as long as it is smaller than 4-by-6 inches. Artists are also asked to scan the QR code on the front of the gallery to inform the museum of what they are taking or leaving, information that is then passed on to any artists involved in the exchange.
Presently, skeletons adorned with pirate hats and bandanas line the walls of the alley, with the window display of the pirate-themed Halloween exhibit featuring miniature treasure chests and skulls, 2-ounce bottles of rum and a ship in a bottle.
‘People Came Out in Droves’
On Oct. 22, the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum will host its third-annual “Great Downtown Duck Hunt,” an event inviting the community to gather from 10 a.m. to noon to search for rubber ducks the HCC is hiding across the downtown area. Participants can exchange their found ducks for prizes ranging from small toys, gas and grocery cards, and even items from the museum’s past exhibits. These prizes include a nesting doll from the Ukrainian exhibit, a ramen bowl from the Everybody Loves Ramen exhibit, a miniature lunch box from the Vintage School exhibit and more.
The grand prizes of the scavenger hunt are two golden ducks, each redeemable for a $100 Amazon gift card.
“The second September 2020 collection was rubber ducks,” Taylor says. “We had all these extra leftover rubber ducks from Easter events at the Hattiesburg Zoo, and while looking into a box of them, we realized it’s crazy having all these different kinds of rubber ducks. There’s the doctor rubber duck, the nurse rubber duck, the graduate rubber duck, the fireman rubber duck. Who needs molded plastic ducks in all these shapes and varieties?”
Taylor and his colleagues at the HCC then organized the exhibit around this question, compiling ducks of different colors, occupations and wardrobes to showcase just how many variations of the rubber duck there are. Even after this exhibit, however, the HCC was still looking for something to do with all these ducks.
“We thought about the whole concept of scavenger hunts, of people hunting, and we were like, ‘OK, let’s do this,’” Taylor recalls. He names several reasons why the scavenger hunt sounded like the best idea at the time: “The weather this time of year really brings people downtown. It’s nice to be out and about. It’s a great event because people come downtown and eat and shop, but ultimately this is just a lot of fun for the family.”
“People came out in droves,” Taylor says. “It was a hit.” The success of the first Great Downtown Duck Hunt prompted the committee to hold the event on an annual basis, repeating it last year and now this one, marking its third year.
For each iteration of the duck hunt, Taylor and his team heightens the difficulty by adding surprise variation to the adventure that remains unrevealed until the day of the event.
“We always try to put a little twist on it,” Taylor says. “The first year we had regular rubber ducks, then the next year we got really small rubber ducks that were much harder to find, and this year—well, I’ll put it this way—it’s going to be much different than years prior.”
‘For the Very Purpose of Helping People’
Many downtown organizations sponsor the Great Downtown Duck Hunt, including Brady’s Snow Shack and the Hattiesburg Zoo. The HCC hopes to give back to these sponsors and the larger Hattiesburg community through the people and revenue the Great Downtown Duck Hunt brings into the area.
“Our underlying purpose for this event is to bring people downtown, to help these businesses grow,” Taylor says, something that he argues has been highly successful with the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum and its affiliated events, which have brought in about 150,000 people a year, Taylor says. Many of these tourists from his experience travel to Hattiesburg from outside the state, potentially discovering the museum through notable outlets such as The Washington Post and Atlas Obscura.
Highlighting the HCC’s focus on community growth is its inclusion of several vouchers for free lunches with Empty Bowls Hattiesburg, a nonprofit fundraiser that Edwards Street Mission sponsors. These vouchers are a direct donation to the Edwards Street Mission’s food pantry, one of the many ways that mission and the HCC hope to give back to their community.
“Everything we do is for the very purpose of helping people in the community: the poor, the underserved and the suffering,” Ann McCullen, executive director of the Edwards Street Mission, says. “That could be me tomorrow, and I pray that someone would treat me with dignity, respect and compassion when I need it.”
Now in its 10th year, the Hattiesburg Empty Bowls is a fundraiser that brings together food, art and the Hattiesburg community to support the nonprofit’s mission. For $25, customers select a soup from their choice of Hattiesburg restaurant, as well as a “unique and handcrafted” ceramic bowl that “potters from all over the Pine Belt have thrown and painted,” McCullen says.
“This year, we had a group of high schoolers paint 65 bowls, but we also have bowls thrown and painted by professional potters like Chatham Kemp and Allen Chen,” McCullen adds.
The HCC is including tickets for this event as a way to “raise awareness of our local food pantry’s important role in our community,” Taylor says. McCullen defines this role as “making Hattiesburg a better and healthier place to live” and says their collaboration with the HCC for the Great Downtown Duck Hunt is “an amazing opportunity to broaden awareness of the services that they have to offer to the Hattiesburg community.”
The third-annual Great Downtown Duck Hunt will be Oct. 22 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum (119 W. Front St.) in downtown Hattiesburg. Participation is free. Participants may redeem ducks for prizes up until the event’s end at noon. Hunters are encouraged to visit Empty Bowls Hattiesburg after the conclusion of the Great Downtown Duck Hunt. The Empty Bowls Hattiesburg fundraiser will take place in and around Main Street Books and GrateFull Soul.
For more information regarding the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum and the Great Downtown Duck Hunt, visit hattiesburgpocketmuseum.com or follow on Facebook or Instagram. For More information on The Edwards Street Mission and Empty Bowls Hattiesburg, visit edwardsstreetfellowship.org or contact the Edwards Street Food Pantry at 601-544-6149.