Saving History

The Charlotte Museum of History was flying high in the late 1990s, with a brand-new building and scads of donors. But it fell on hard times and closed earlier this spring. In a city that some say doesn’t value history, can the museum find its way again?


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Docent Robert Bemis fires a musket outside the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander House, a beautifully preserved structure that stands on the museum’s grounds.

Logan Cyrus

(page 1 of 2)

On a warm Saturday evening in September, three food trucks lined the driveway of the Charlotte Museum of History’s packed parking lot, and curious guests attending an open house were directed by upbeat, smiling museum volunteers:

That noise? That’d be the muskets. Head over to the Hezekiah Alexander House to see the docents in costume, you don’t want to miss that. But maybe you’d like to start inside, with the exhibits? You’re free to roam and see everything we have. Don’t forget to go upstairs. And we’d love to hear from you during the community forums; the next one’s starting in fifteen minutes.

Inside the sunny conference room, interim museum director Kathy Ridge, giving a community forum presentation, is on the fourth screen of her PowerPoint: “Financial History.”

Speaking to a group of fifteen, Ridge runs down a list of long-ago administrators, from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mint Museum, to city government and the county Parks and Recreation Department. She clicks over to the fifth slide. “Financial Crisis Point.”

From the back row, Sheryl Jacoppo raises her hand with a question. She pauses, as if to explain herself.

“I used to work here,” Jacoppo says.

The open house, with all its cheer, wasn’t the September bash the museum had planned to hold.

Awarded a delegate welcoming party during the Democratic National Con-vention—an extraordinary historic moment for Charlotte—the museum should have been basking in an unprecedented opportunity to show off the grand vaulted ceilings, the custom staircase, and most of all, the story of the city.

But the Charlotte Museum of History wouldn’t or couldn’t be kept open, not even long enough for the convention. When it closed in May because of financial difficulties, staff members like Jacoppo had already been laid off, and the museum has been reorganizing since. The delegate party was reassigned, as if the museum had been whisked away by a vaudeville hook from stage right.

When ground broke fifteen years ago on the gleaming white, 36,000-square-foot, $7 million museum building off Shamrock Drive, replacing a small building that once served as a quaint welcome center to visitors bound for the historic Hezekiah Alexander house, six-figure checks were coming in from donors. The new museum building made a statement: We’re an institution, here to do big, serious, permanent things.   

A lot led to the museum’s closing. Talk to people who’ve been involved with the museum at some point and you’ll find heartstrings wrapped around the buildings, the grounds, the memories made there, and perhaps most of all, the dazzle of potential.

But history, especially American history, is full of multiple acts. Fans want to find a way to make it possible for the museum to come back, stronger and wiser this time. And in the process, they’re going to be answering an unforgiving question: In a city known for bulldozing its own history and an obsession with the future, are people willing to commit to this place once and for all?

 

No one wants a museum to stumble. That’d be like cheering for a public library’s closure, or reduced benefits for injured veterans. To do so would fall somewhere between unseemly and unpatriotic. Perhaps that’s part of why when Charlotte magazine spoke with nearly two dozen people with ties to the museum for this piece—some with old ties, some new, some on a volunteer level, others paid staff—there was one common thread: People answered questions with nostalgic sighs. They launched into stories about the good times. They asked whether the magazine had uncovered any promising updates pointing toward a swift, vibrant recovery.

Several described themselves as wistfully waiting for a call saying it’s time to come back. “The docent corps was very strong until about six months before the closing,” says Jim Williams, treasurer of the Mecklenburg Historical Association. “A lot of these people are still standing around asking: ‘What happened?’”

The concept for the museum and grounds was launched in the 1940s, as an effort by the DAR to restore the Hezekiah Alexander House. (Alexander was a signer of the controversial Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.)

In the years that followed, unofficial tours began, and then in 1976, a small welcome center and museum was built. By 1990, a private foundation then named after the homesite took over administration and raised more than $3 million for an endowment. The 1990s were a decade of momentum, excitement, and ambitious ideas; supporters began talking about a much larger, iconic, artifact-collecting museum. By 1999, they had one.

But still, challenges nagged. The museum, many people say, didn’t build a reputation as the place to experience the story of Charlotte. The exhibits didn’t always tell a clear, compelling narrative of the city, and the museum faltered by never picking one path and committing to it. In one room, there was a display of equipment from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department. In another, a diorama of the city before it was developed. The exhibits were popular on their own but made for an incongruous whole. Just out back, on a path leading to the historic home, there’s a bell meant to remind people of major moments in Charlotte’s past. Unlike the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, which had a supporting role in real events, the “American Freedom Bell,” a gift from the Belk Foundation in 1999, is meant only to “symbolize the patriotic heritage of the people of Charlotte.” Pretty? Sure. But something was missing.

Some felt the museum should focus on pre–Civil War history, both to reflect the museum’s Revolutionary heritage and to avoid encroaching on Levine Museum of the New South, which opened in 1991 and which most everyone agreed has nailed 1865 through the present in a concise and engaging way. A strategic plan, which the history museum commissioned in 2007 for $193,000 (a gift from a patron), recommended telling the story of all three centuries and not viewing 1865 as some sort of artificial line; the board agreed.

Still, ten former employees or volunteers, independent of each other, used the same phrase when describing the museum leadership’s biggest misstep: You can’t be all things to all people.

Some worried visitors to a Southern museum expected more about the Civil War, in which Charlotte didn’t play a pivotal role. Others felt recent programming focusing on new immigrant groups received far too much emphasis.

There were leadership issues, too: the director position at the museum turned over five times in the last dozen years. The most recent director, Angelica Docog, left the museum to run the Institute for Texan Cultures in San Antonio. Docog would not comment for this piece.

But Ridge says the museum’s problems aren’t limited to internal issues—research shows that Americans are losing interest in history, she says.

Local attorney Scott Syfert, a cofounder and vice chair of the May 20th Society (another Mecklenburg County history appreciation group), doesn’t buy that. Syfert says thousands of people have either taken part in the city’s just-launched Liberty Walk uptown or attended the 2010 unveiling of the Captain James Jack statue on the corner of Fourth Street and Kings Drive.

“In the last ten years, [the museum’s] market share has been gradually eroded by uptown museums like the Levine, the Bechtler, and really focused groups, like the greenway project [the Mecklenburg Trail of History, along the Little Sugar Creek greenway],” Syfert says. “Like any business, they need to retool their plan.”

In 2011, 22,403 people visited the museum, compared to Latta Planta-tion’s 35,941 and Levine Museum of the New South’s 68,802 visitors, according to the Arts & Science Council.

 

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