RALEIGH — For most of its 20 years, Raleigh’s downtown museum has suffered from a ho-hum, stifled-yawn, black-and-white photograph reputation – an image that Ernest Dollar hopes to break in pieces.
As its newest director, he’s already donned a Sir Walter Raleigh costume – with some embarrassment – to welcome visitors.
Once a month, he hosts a public access TV segment called “Raleigh’s Coolest Attic,” where he shows off some of the vintage hats and gowns from the museum’s largely hidden collection, as well as items from the city’s civil rights movement and other artifacts.
And Saturday, he’s leading a Civil War-themed walking tour down Fayetteville Street in the steps of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army. He tried to grow a mustache to look more authentic for the occasion, but he gave up after two months.
“I’m so eager to get this museum out of these four walls,” he said. “We have to build a museum that would attract ages 8 to 80. Right now, we’re 65 and up.”
Dollar, hired in September, represents a shift in the museum’s sepia-toned approach, which has seen the Fayetteville Street storefront change everything starting with the name. It’s now the COR Museum, for “City of Raleigh.”
Exhibits long dominated by framed photographs and glass cases will be redefined by digital exhibits with ceiling-hung projectors and speakers. Even the gift shop has expanded to include locally made goods such as Holly Aiken bags and Videri chocolates.
Most radical in the changes is the city’s ownership, which folds the museum and other historic sites around Raleigh into a division of the Parks and Recreation Department. The move gives the museum an annual budget of $225,363, including Dollar’s $47,017 salary.
“What they recognized was that Raleigh already had a cluster of these types of things but they weren’t really being programmed together,” said Carter Worthy, chair of a nonprofit museum friends group. “The museum is the core of all that, pun intended, the core asset where Raleigh’s identity is put on display.”
Course was rocky
The pathway during two decades has been stony.
The museum, created in 1993, began life in the Borden Building on the grounds of Fred Fletcher Park, about a mile from downtown. It got by with volunteer workers and about $8,500 in private donations. Early firefighting equipment made up its first exhibits.
By 1999, the museum had moved to the Briggs Hardware Building on Fayetteville Street, but it was squeaking by because of financial troubles. Director Jenny Kulikowski quit in 2003 to save the museum money. At the same time, questions arose about its failure to make a $150,000 payment for its space in the Briggs building. A report requested by the city council found no mismanagement of funds. (The money for the payment had been transferred to operating costs.)
Then in 2006, the museum dismissed curator Dusty Wescott and promoted a chief fundraiser to the top spot. Admission rose by 14,000 people to 22,000 in 2007, largely because Fayetteville Street reopened to cars. Still, reviewers did not rave.
“Very sterile,” said Jayne Kirkpatrick, Raleigh spokeswoman. “It was like, ‘Don’t touch.’ ”
For a while, the museum’s inside won’t look much different.
New, tech-y look ahead
The front lobby has been cleared for temporary exhibits, which have so far included moments in black history in Raleigh. A recent exhibit told the story of nursing students at St. Agnes Hospital, which was in the era of segregated health care the only medical facility for blacks between Hampton, Va., and New Orleans. But soon the main gallery will be reconfigured into a series of arch-shaped exhibits, the first of which will be called “Raleigh Then, Now and Next.” The second exhibit is to be named City Lab and will focus on one theme at a time.
Dollar has proposed a City Lab theme of water. The exhibit would explore why a new state capital was built far from a navigable waterway and how it moves its modern supply through thousands of miles of pipes. He envisions live video feeds showing the flow.
The third area would contain traveling exhibits, including those based at the Smithsonian. He hopes those will start taking shape this summer.
“I think Raleigh is becoming a very sophisticated 21st-century city,” he said. “It’s a wonderful time to be here.”
Though maybe not in costume much longer.
Dollar recalled the results of his Sir Walter experiment: “People were like, ‘Why is that man wearing bloomers?’ ”