Nearly 21 years after its grand opening, the N.C. Museum of History is working on a massive renovation and expansion, adding more exhibit space and possibly even a fourth floor.
The state has budgeted $1.5 million to start the planning process, with a report due by this fall. Legislators got an update on the project last week.
“We just need more room,” museum director Ken Howard said Thursday. “Because we are a collecting museum, we are pretty much out of space to store our collection.”
The revamp would solve a range of problems with the museum’s configuration. Since it opened in 1994, visitors have complained about the building layout – exhibits are scattered between the first and third floors, with offices awkwardly taking up the entire second floor.
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“It’s kind of hard to explain to people where they need to go to see things,” Howard said.
Then there’s the space issue. When the permanent “Story of North Carolina” exhibit opened in 2011, it took over the museum’s largest gallery space. That’s made it impossible to host large traveling exhibits, which can boost attendance numbers and raise money for the museum through admission fees.
While the museum’s neighbor – the recently expanded N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences – is hosting giant dinosaur replicas this year, the history museum’s biggest draw is a staff-curated exhibit on the state’s film industry. Luring a bigger attraction would require a 12,000-square-foot gallery.
Even the “Story of North Carolina” needs more room. While it traces the state’s history starting 14,000 years ago, the timeline stops at 1960. Curators are eager to bring the story up to the present day.
In addition to the need for more space, the building’s infrastructure has seen better days. Occasional fire alarm malfunctions can force hundreds of visitors to evacuate. The heating and air-conditioning system also has problems, which can damage artifacts that need temperature and humidity control.
“There’s some times you can come in here and it will be raining in a gallery because there’s so much condensation coming off the HVAC system,” Howard said.
Expanding the building, however, will come with its own set of challenges. The site is landlocked between three busy city streets and the science museum, with little room to add a new wing.
So museum leaders are looking up. Structural engineers are evaluating whether the building can safely handle an additional level.
“One of the goals we have is to potentially add a fourth floor to the museum,” Howard said.
If the museum grows taller, the fourth floor would accommodate offices as well as conference space that could be rented to the public. Those awkward second-floor offices would be torn out to allow for higher ceilings on the first floor.
Workers would enclose the courtyard area on the north end of the building outside Pharaoh’s Grill. That would become the new lobby with more restaurant and classroom space.
“Our goal would be to build a new wing in that space that would become a new entrance of the museum,” Howard said. “That’s where all the buses tend to unload.”
Groundbreaking is five or six years away, and Howard said there’s no estimate yet on how much the renovation and expansion will cost. It would likely be funded by a mix of state dollars and private donations through the museum’s foundation.
Some of the cost will depend on what the engineers say about building a fourth floor. If that option proves too expensive, museum leaders might consider an annex across Wilmington Street.
That’s the approach the science museum took when it built the Nature Research Center in 2012. A skywalk connects the two wings across Salisbury Street.
Meanwhile, the museum continues to attract more visitors. Nearly 336,000 people walked through the doors last year – well more than the 230,000 annual visitors the museum averaged in the mid-1990s when it was brand new.
$42.3 million facelift at Albemarle Building
While upgrades to the N.C. Museum of History are likely years away, construction will begin this fall on a $42.3 million renovation of the Albemarle Building, the 12-story state office tower on North Salisbury Street.
The renovation is the first step in Gov. Pat McCrory’s “Project Phoenix” effort to fix up state buildings that are in poor condition. Albemarle houses offices for the state treasurer, Department of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, all of which are moving out for construction.
While McCrory has proposed turning some downtown state buildings into mixed-use facilities with retail or restaurant space on the ground floor, the revamped Albemarle Building will still have offices and hearing rooms on the first floors.
When the building reopens in February 2017, it will consolidate the entire N.C. Department of Insurance under one roof. Landscaping and planters outside the building will be replaced to “create a more welcoming appearance,” according to a report submitted to legislators this month. colin campbell