Museum Critique #3: NC History Museum

North Carolina Museum of History

Web site review:

Prior to my visit to the North Carolina Museum of History, I visited their web site at: http://www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/ for some background information. The site provides information on a variety of programs, activities, upcoming exhibits, as well as information for education. It has a vertical linear design, which seems a bit outdated. The left column has visual representations of current events and programs, while the right column lists the additional pages on the site such as planning a visit, exhibits, artifacts, and education. The listing is comprehensive, but could be better organized and explained.

The section on planning a visit contains general information such as hours of operation, admission, location, and parking information. However, it seems to be a bit tedious to move through several menus to get to some of this information. A direct link on the front page would be more effective. The teacher section contains resource guides and checklists for a field trip. The resource guide is a five-megabyte pdf file that takes too long to load. The checklist loads faster, but a printable version would be a bit more useful. The section on available tours is a grade level list that one has to scroll through to find details. It needs to be re-organized for ease of use as well as for teaching objectives and how various parts of a tour may meet state learning guidelines.

The exhibits sections lists current, upcoming, and previous exhibits. It gives a scrollable listing with a brief abstract and a link to learn more about each exhibit. Although comprehensive and organized by status of exhibit, the list could be better presented for ease of use online. The education section has an extensive listing of resources including teacher institutes, internship information, outreach programs, student information, and virtual field trips. Many of these links are cross-linked with programs on other sections of this site. The internship section gives details about general and project-based internships for students as well as deadlines and application information. One of the most interesting aspects of the museum is their sponsorship of the Tar Heel Junior Historian Association. It is a student organization dedicated to the study of local and state history in North Carolina. This section of the site contains detailed information about the organization, its programs, how to join, what they do with the museum and a variety of their publications. It is most likely the highlight of the museum’s programs.

The remaining sections of the site contain information on the artifacts and collections at the museum. There is also a section with information for how people can care for their own historical treasures in their local collections. A section on collections management and conservation provide unique insight into the methods used at the museum for display and exhibition. The site also contains background information timelines based on themes such as women’s history or native peoples as well as the traditional centennial timelines.

The site has a particular portion dedicated specifically to kids and their interests. This kid-friendly zone contains such age-appropriate activities in categories named history-hunters, time-travelers, and explorers. Each section also contains information for parents and teachers to support these historical explorations beyond the museum experience. There are also resources about careers for historians as well as online games and activities to support the museum exhibits and programs.

The site also has a section about utilizing some of the facilities as rental space for various types of events including receptions, exhibition openings, and historical events. There are a variety of links to other historical associations and museums in North Carolina as well as historical information related to many of the museums’ artifacts and exhibits. The site has significant depth to the information provided, but may need some additional organization to make all of their resources more accessible to the public. However, I was able to find enough information on the site to provide a reasonable plan for my visit.

Museum Review:

The museum is located in downtown Raleigh on a mall area that contains the state museums and government buildings. At the front entrance are several bronze statues of famous or typical North Carolinians in various poses welcoming visitors to the museum. Upon entering, there is a gift shop to right and a help desk straight ahead to direct visitors to various places within the museum. In addition to the gift shop, the lower floor also houses traveling exhibit space and an auditorium which allows for shows and visits to traveling exhibit without having to see rest of museum. The lower floor also houses classrooms for school group visits as well as some of the educational areas. Permanent exhibits on this floor focus on historical clothing and transportation from horses to horsepower. Historical vehicles are situated in a front alcove showcasing the evolution of transportation throughout North Carolina. Across the main floor is an exhibit that explains the wide diversity of textiles that have been produced in North Carolina history. Off to one side are some elevators that one can use to get to the roof gardens. The second floor is used for offices and one must bypass this in the elevator to get to third floor exhibits. This design has its drawbacks and can be a bit confusing for visitors unfamiliar with the museum arrangement.

The primary collection of permanent exhibits inhabits the third floor. Many focus on particular themes or significant events in North Carolina history. The exhibit, “A call to Arms”, celebrates North Carolina in the American Revolution. It houses fairly traditional exhibits in displays and viewing formats. Two exhibits on the USS North Carolina and the Weapons of War illustrate the variety of ways that North Carolina contributed to both the development and maintenance of important war related machinery. The main exhibit hall contains three parts: The first is dedicated to the decorative arts of NC including furniture, quilting, cabinetry, etc. The second focuses on the native peoples and their contributions with such items as pottery making and basket weaving. The third area is primarily dedicated to the Junior historical association with a variety of exhibits of how youth have contributed to history as well as displays designed by school age children on topics of historical interest to North Carolina. These student exhibits are quite informative and show such items as the first Putt-putt golf course in Fayetteville as well as the old Hopkins country store. There are also exhibits explaining the structure of the traditional log cabins in pioneer days of the state. One significant highlight is a room that is designed to represent a drug store. This exhibit included a large collection of artifacts found in a traditional old North Carolina drug store. The countertops, lighting, seating, and the ancient collection of apothecary items provide quite an authentic atmosphere to this exhibit. In addition, it includes a special dedication to the invention of Pepsi, first made in New Bern, North Carolina.

The sports hall of fame illustrates famous North Carolinians contributions in athletics and physical experience. Artifacts such as ancient balls, bats, and other sporting equipment reside along side such legendary items as basketball jerseys and NASCAR vehicles from celebrated victories of the past. Reminiscences of wonderful past athletic performances as well as how diversity throughout North Carolina athletics has altered the landscape show how sports have had an important cultural influence on the nature of our society today.

Overall, this museum preserves many of the most important types of historical artifacts in North Carolina’s past. It spans a wide variety from a small section dedicated to native peoples to a full-scale replica of the Wright brothers’ airplane flight at Kitty Hawk. The first successful gyro-copter is housed here in the main hall as well as some significant historical collections of civil-rights photographs and artifacts. The museum only exhibits a small portion of its collection, according to some of the docents, and strives to find new methods to connect visitors with their own history. However, this museum has several areas in which it may improve. Some of the types of displays are quite outdated given the potential of modern techniques. There is a significant lack of interactivity or inspirational engagement in many of the exhibits and much potential for making visitor connections goes unrealized. The lack of additional space for display of more of the collection would also aid in drawing more visitors, as well as options for creating more student displays and involvement. Many of the exhibit areas showcase important aspects of North Carolina history, while others seem to be focused on themes funded by particular organizations. The lack of an overall museum theme and direction for the entire collection and its impact on the visitor can be disconcerting for a new visitor. One may come away with an eclectic collective mental image of random important items, but not always make connections with the important themes present throughout North Carolina history.

I enjoyed my visit, and am proud of the accomplishments of my fellow North Carolinians, but I would be more inspired by a museum tone and theme that emphasizes a greater realm of future historical mandates for our youth today. The junior historical association is a great step in this direction along with the nature of many of their contests and displays. It is through energizing and empowering our youth to both understand history and feel a need to help shape the future based on our knowledge of the past, that we will reap the greatest rewards from our historical museum experiences in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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