N.C. Museum of History opening its largest exhibit

ckellner@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2011 


A new exhibit on North Carolina through history is set to open at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh, N.C. in early November. Here is one of the displays on North Carolina at the turn of century.

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— Things that fit inside the North Carolina Museum of History’s new exhibit, its largest ever:

Two full-size houses.

Authentic tobacco and textile mill façades, two stories apiece.

Multiple tractors.

A scale replica of the Wright brothers’ flying machine.

It’s so big, each of those artifacts almost looks small.

It’s so big, it requires numbered maps and strategically placed benches for the weary of foot.

It’s so big, they’re throwing the biggest party since the museum opened to celebrate this weekend, and the whole state is invited.

“It’s not the old-style museum,” associate director Bill McCrea said.

The Story of North Carolina exhibit winds its way across 20,000 square feet and 14,000 years of history.

The party – otherwise known as the Celebrate N.C. History Festival – will fill Bicentennial Plaza outside the museum with entertainment ranging from Miss North Carolina Hailey Best to the Tony-winning Red Clay Ramblers, from storytellers to the state dog, from antique tractors to free Cheerwine samples to the pirate Blackbeard, starting at 11 a.m. Saturday.

There’s something for everyone, a fitting kickoff for an exhibit that uses every high-tech innovation and low-tech standby available to spark the history-buff and lure the history-bored.

The first half of the exhibit, which ends just before the Civil War, is already open. The second half, opening Saturday, starts at the War between the States and travels through Reconstruction, industrialization, two world wars and the Civil Rights movement, up through the present decades of rapid growth and the descent of The Big Three (furniture, textiles and tobacco) as the state’s primary employers.

The museum has been trying for a chronological exhibit since it opened in 1994, McCrea said. This particular version has been in development since 2005. The final design and construction cost about $9.3 million, with private funding covering about $1.1 million. The idea was to tell North Carolina’s story through its ordinary residents instead of just the rich, famous or powerful, said RaeLana Poteat, curator of political and social history. .

There are clever interactive exhibits like the textile mill, whose display is backed by specially placed mirrors that make two looms from the time period look like a cavernous textile plant. At the push of a button, special effects shake the floor with loud rumbles under the viewer’s feet and blow textile lint into the air inside the display, replicating the noisy, choking atmosphere of a turn-of-the-century mill.

Expressive life-sized figures cast from real-life models stand throughout the exhibit, wearing period clothing, showing North Carolina history through its people. There’s a grieving Civil War widow and a black man taking his first step toward the ballot box. Those modern innovations are flanked by the museum’s impressive collection of artifacts, from Civil War swords to World War II handguns, from an original KKK hood to the Salisbury lunch counter that was the site of a Civil Rights sit-in.

The largest-ever display is also permanent – and big enough that visitors might have to come back.

“We want people to leave with pride in the history of their state and the people who shaped it,” McCrea said. “We want it to be a resource people can reuse, often.”

Kellner: 919-829-4802

Want to go?

What: Celebrate N.C. History Festival, kickoff for the exhibit

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bicentennial Plaza, outside the museum

Award-winning musicians such as the Red Clay Ramblers will perform alongside storytellers, dance groups, authors, craftspeople, re-enactors, Miss North Carolina Hailey Best and dozens more to capture the flavor and diversity of the Tar Heel State. Food (including free Cheerwine samples) and children’s activities also will be available.

Don’t miss…

The Story of North Carolina’s 20,000 square feet of artifacts and interactive exhibits can be overwhelming – not to mention time-consuming. For those with short attention spans and those who are just short on time, here’s a quick checklist of must-sees:

The interactive map at the start of the show: It’s a raised replica of North Carolina, studded with lights demarcating the railroads and wooden folk art that jumps into animation at the touch of a button. Pretty impressive, and unexpectedly fun.

The textile mill: Enter the impressive façade, and clever design turns two turn-of-the-century textile looms into a cavernous cloth-making factory. Special effects include a loud rumbling that shakes the floor and lint blown into the air, the ambiance that partially deafened and choked workers of the period. Don’t worry, it’s way quieter in this version, and you’re protected from the lint by glass.

WWI enlistment office: Get your picture taken as a WWI soldier going off to war and see it hang amid real photos from the time period.

Secession theater: Watch a short film about North Carolina’s struggle with leaving the union before the start of the Civil War.

The Great Depression exhibit: Study the faces of North Carolinians who lived through the hardships of the time in period photographs, while examining what they created during their difficulties.

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