The North Carolina Museum of History holds an amazing array of fun-to-view items from racing gear to antique surgical tools to periodically visiting historic documents. To use a social media metaphor, it’s sort of a Facebook page for the history of one of the nation’s original colonies. Only everybody is “friended” – except maybe the Redcoats who had to be run off long ago.
Interesting statues greet visitors from the steps. Many a child looks at them curiously. And, yes, most adults, too.
The museum also has become a site of festive gatherings, including one not long ago to celebrate an outstanding display on movie-making in North Carolina.
The Raleigh jewel has hosted all kinds of exhibits through the years, from one on that North Carolina sport of stock car racing to a timely display of guitars and fiddles and one of those big stand-up “doghouse” basses so common in bluegrass bands when the World of Bluegrass was in town.
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The museum is nimble. It can adjust to showcase almost anything. It tailored one exhibit to the 40th anniversary of Watergate and likely had one of the best exhibits in the country on the sad saga of Richard Nixon.
That’s because Rufus Edmisten, former state attorney general and secretary of state, had artifacts from his days as counsel to the Watergate committee. Some days, Edmisten would give tours himself, and they were predictably colorful.
So this museum deserves to have more than potential in its future. The museum’s leadership under director Ken Howard is a gifted team that’s doing more with less – less space that is – than probably any museum in the United States. Visitors agree: Some 336,000 of them went through last year, substantially above the 230,000 average in the mid-1990s when the museum was new.
That speaks to vast improvements in the exhibits. It also speaks to, given the museum’s limited size downtown, the need to invest in this valuable resource.
North Carolina keeps making history, but there’s really nowhere left to put it. “The Story of North Carolina” exhibit traces the state’s history starting 14,000 years ago, but the timeline stops at 1960. That’s why the museum is considering adding a floor, one of the limited options for expansion considering its location between the State Capitol and the Legislative Building.
Some visitors even comment on the need because on the same day they go to the history museum, they often also travel to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences only a few yards away and see a cutting-edge facility that is the envy of many other states. It is nothing short of spectacular.
The state has budgeted $1.5 million to start the process of planning an expansion, with a report due by this fall. There has been no estimate on how much the project would cost, but it would likely be funded by a mix of state dollars and private donations through the museum’s foundation. Groundbreaking is likely at least five years away.
One of ‘the sights’
The state owes it to itself to invest more in the history museum, which is a draw for school groups and academic researchers and the many thousands of visitors who come to Raleigh to “do the sights.” It also is an important priority because of North Carolina’s threads in the fabric of American history: original colony, Civil War battlefields, military installations.
In other words, it’s not as if there’s nothing to talk about or exhibit regarding the state’s long and illustrious and significant history. Frankly, we’ve always wondered why there wasn’t a wing devoted exclusively to “The Andy Griffith Show,” one of the greatest cultural achievements of humankind.
The museum’s staff has made this case with its hard work and with efficiencies, but it can only do so much with the space it has. It should be able to do more.