The Ava Gardner Museum’s new director wants to show Gardner’s personal side.
Deanna Brandenberger became the museum’s executive director earlier this month, succeeding Todd Johnson, who left to become director of the Johnston County Heritage Center. She has been a fan of Gardner’s since childhood, and her grandfather, now 91, considers himself the late actress’s biggest fan.
“I just remember my grandfather saying she was a self-made woman; came from a modest background in North Carolina; she was the daughter of a farmer,” Brandenberger recalled. “She really just made her life into what she did. It was an amazing transition to go from that to Hollywood goddess.”
As director, Brandenberger wants to show not just the star’s Hollywood life but her roots in Johnston County. “The amazing thing that I love about this museum is her impact on the community,” Brandenberger said. She plans to collect oral histories from people who knew Gardner and focus more exhibits on her day-to-day life.
“You can see the glamor, and you can understand that is something that the world saw,” she said. “But I think when you come here ... you want to see the accessible Ava, the one that people here knew in Smithfield and the personal side that you didn’t get to see in the media at the time ”
To that end, she’s organizing a new exhibit for the museum’s annual festival in October. Called “A Peak in Ava’s Closet,” the exhibit will show off her personal wear, which was often casual and a contrast to her designer Hollywood dresses.
Brandenberger also wants to rotate exhibits more often by pulling from museum’s large collection of Gardner memorabilia, much of which is in storage. That collection includes music records, movie memorabilia, furniture and gifts she gave others.
“We are not going to be the museum that once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen everything we have,” Brandenberger said. “We definitely want to keep people coming back and instill this love of Ava that we all have on the board.”
Brandenberger would also like to host workshops to bring more people to the museum. Those could include painting parties or how to put on makeup in 1940s styles.
Brandenberger, who was born in California, earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in archeology from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2006. She completed her master’s degree in history from the same school in 2012, focusing on cultural studies. Since then, Brandenberger has worked as an archeologist and in cultural-resource management and museum consulting.
She moved to Fayetteville last year to be closer to family and is excited to put down roots in Smithfield.
Though Brandenberger wants to focus on what Gardner was like as a person, she also loves her star-studded career. “The unique thing about this museum is we really are in the business of selling stardust in Smithfield,” she said. “It is about glamor. It is about her place in film history.”
Mary Helen Wyatt, chairwoman of the museum’s board of directors, said four people applied for the job of museum director. She liked that Brandenberger had museum experience.
“She has a wonderful personality,” Wyatt said. “She is quite driven, and she certainly seemed to be the best candidate for the job.”