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North Carolina Museum of History

I’ve been writing a series of posts about our time in North Carolina last week. Thursday was Raleigh day, and I’ve already written about our visit to the State Capitol, built in 1840, as well as the state’s Legislative Building, which opened in 1963. The Legislative Building is two blocks north of the capitol building, with the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Bicentennial Mall occupying the intermediate block. As I have mentioned in several posts, the natural sciences museum is currently closed for two weeks in preparation for the opening of a new wing this Friday. Following our tour of the capitol, we headed to the history museum, which you see above with the Legislative Building beyond.

We entered a well-lit atrium running the length of the lobby, with exhibits straight back and on the floors above. From my review of the website a couple of weeks ago, I was most eager to see an exhibit called The Story of North Carolina. We stopped at the information desk, where the helpful guide unfolded a museum map, pointed to it on the map and to its opening behind her, then warned us that we could get spend the whole day there. The second floor has museum offices only, and there are more exhibits on the third floor, plus the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

We never did make it to the third floor. One definitely can spend the day in The Story of North Carolina. We contented ourself with two-and-a-half hours, cutting our time short since we had hopes of eating and getting to the North Carolina Museum of Art. Thus, the only part of the museum I can write about is that one exhibit.

Here are excerpts from the exhibit description at the website:

The Story of North Carolina, the largest exhibit ever produced at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh, opened to rave reviews in 2011. This permanent exhibit traces life in North Carolina from its earliest inhabitants through the 20th century. …

More than 14,000 years of the state’s history unfold through fascinating artifacts, multimedia presentations, dioramas, and hands-on interactive components. Additionally, two full-size historic houses and several re-created environments immerse museum visitors in places where North Carolinians have lived and worked. Yet the heart of The Story of North Carolina focuses on the people — both well-known and everyday citizens — who shaped the Tar Heel State.

Gilbert Waters’ 1903 Buggymobile (prototype automobile) is one of several objects in The Story of North Carolina that speak to the entrepreneurial spirit of Tar Heels.

Highlights in the first part of The Story of North Carolina include American Indian life, European settlement, piracy, the American Revolution and early 1800s farm life. The exhibit continues through the antebellum era, the Civil War, the rise of industry, the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and the Civil Rights movement.

As wonderful as the exhibit was — and it was — I have to say that there wasn’t much on the Civil Rights movement. Unless we missed a turn. Every so often as we made our way around, I would say to Gail that we’re only up to the Civil War, or 1900, and there’s still all of the Civil Rights movement to go through near the end. But then we got to the end and it wasn’t there. The exhibit ended with the Greensboro student sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter.

No big deal, since we had gone to Greensboro two days earlier and seen the International Civil Rights Center & Museum , which fills that very Woolworth’s. And we really did need to eat and move on. Still, I was surprised.

As for what we did see, there were so many highlights. The houses you could walk through or look into were interesting, especially the slave house that was moved to the museum when a road was built that required its move. This was part of a whole section on the pre-Civil War North Carolina economy and slavery. There was good description of the tar and turpentine industry, making use of the local pine trees to serve the shipping industry. This included a tar spill and tar footprints leading off from it, across the main floor, with a sign explaining why North Carolinians are called tar heels. As for the slave house, several signs described the inhabitants and the lives they would have led.

I have failed to mention a key feature of the exhibit: classes and classes of school kids, coming in waves. They would race through, one group wearing red shirts, another some other identifying feature. Here’s a wave that must have a school assignment requiring photos, because every time you want to read a sign or examine an exhibit, another one cuts in front, holds up his or her cell phone, and takes a shot. Or a sequence of shots, panning the space. There’s a wave that has discovered how to trip the warning beepers in the houses. The slave house, for instance, can only be seen through two windows and a door. Put your arm far enough in through a window and you set off the alarm, which screams for 15 seconds. And then there are the families with the kids who use the signs as leaning posts: put both hands on the sign I’m trying to read, then lean way in to see the slave house better.

Oh well. Patience. They don’t stay long.

From antebellum North Carolina, one enters a room with a video about the start of war. NC was slow to join the Confederacy. But once shots were fired at Fort Sumter and Lincoln wanted to send troops through to South Carolina, North Carolina seceded. Exiting the video room (which one class decided to enter 3/4ths through the movie), one comes to the Civil War exhibits.

Perhaps the most powerful exhibits had to do with Reconstruction and its aftermath.

One whole room is devoted to what amounted to a coup by the Democratic Party in Wilmington in 1898 — the Wilmington Insurrection. The signs and photos told the story well. The video was powerful.

Then, on to the development of the twentieth-century North Carolina economy, based on the triad of textiles, tobacco, and furniture.

Again, excellent displays. An underlying theme was the change in the agricultural economy after the Civil War, the lack of opportunities other than sharecropping (a virtual indentured servitude), and the resulting rush of whites to cities to take factory jobs. There’s a depiction of a factory town, the owners imagining that they are taking care of white people with the company school, church, stores, etc. We then jump to the 1920s and enter the textile mill below to learn how the story developed. Longer hours, declining wages, child labor, union busting, deafening roar, damaged hearing and lungs, no health care. From indentured servitude to hell.

The factory floor you see is enhanced by mirrors. It’s surprisingly realistic in its sense of space. And there’s a button to push that gives you about 45 seconds of noise and vibrating floor, recreating the conditions you read about.

Next up: World War I, the Depression, World War II. Oh, regarding WWII, there’s a big map showing the German U-boat attacks on ships off the coast of North Carolina and a button to push to hear the story.

Soon, we’re staring at a portion of the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter, and then, in one final room, there’s a continuous loop video about the post-war state economy. From there, out to the blindingly bright lobby. For us, time to go.

We headed down a floor and out to Pharoah’s Grill, a semi-fast-food restaurant that is built into the museum building but accessible from the Bicentennial Mall. Not the greatest lunch, but an interesting menu, and maybe we didn’t choose well.

Next up: our visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Categories: History, Museums
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