OPINION: The Case for an Anchored Levine Museum
Building’s pending sale risks the very eclipse of Charlotte history that the museum has resisted
Through most of Charlotte’s 253 years, civic leaders have looked to the future, not the past. This outlook fuels one of our city’s greatest strengths: its openness to newcomers and new ideas. It also creates a problem: a compulsion to raze landscapes and institutions and ignore or dismiss the consequences. This approach has led to the destruction of historical landmarks like the Independence Building, North Carolina’s first skyscraper, and the bulldozing of neighborhoods like Brooklyn, the historic heart of Charlotte’s Black community. New over old. Out of sight, out of mind.
We are now on the verge of losing even more. For the past quarter-century, the Levine Museum of the New South has swum defiantly against the current of historical erasure. Through its wide-ranging programs and exhibitions, it has given Charlotte history a home and built a national reputation for excellence and courage. But the museum announced in June that it intends to sell its building and has no firm plans for a new, permanent location. The decision shocked longtime residents who have proudly watched the institution grow. It should worry all of us who care about our city’s past, and about its future.
Inside the museum, history has weight, takes solid form. Visitors encounter artifacts that include the carved mahogany desk owned by Frederick Albert Clinton, who emerged from slavery in Lancaster County to serve in the South Carolina Senate during Reconstruction; the cascading assemblages of belts, wheels, cogs and spindles that drove the textile mills that transformed Charlotte from a crossroads town to one of the most prosperous cities in the South; the embroidered banner—“Votes for Women!”—once carried by our city’s suffragettes; the home-sewn hood and beribboned robe that belonged to a local Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon; the shelves of a Mexican tienda, full of foods from far-off homes.
And then there are the sounds: the clatter that saturated cotton mill weave rooms; the rhythmic tones of a newsreel reporter narrating President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit here in 1936; the passion in the voices of sit-in pioneers; some of the tunes etched into wax back in the 1920s and 1930s, when world-renowned musicians like the Golden Gate Quartet, Carter Family, and Bill Monroe recorded in the city’s studios. The full effect is of a vibrant, changing city to which different people have contributed in different ways, striving to overcome old wrongs and address new challenges.
Nearly three decades ago, when the museum hired me to curate its first major exhibit, I could not have imagined it would reach these heights. I knew Charlotte had a reputation for dismissing history. I also knew it had a penchant for full-throated self-promotion, a tendency that prompted one writer to suggest it harbored “the purest strain ever discovered of the Southern booster gene.” I suspected that the museum was intended mainly as a superficial celebration of the accomplishments of the city’s most prominent individuals.
The structure underscored those concerns. It was a “museum without walls,” tasked with placing temporary exhibits in temporary spots all over town. Put up and take down—not an approach that encouraged sustained, substantive historical investigation. That became clear when we were unable to find a space for the exhibit I had been hired to curate, and it ended up in an igloo-like white tent on the vacant lot that once held the lobby of the Carolina Theater. Soon afterward, fortunately, the board acquired a building.
The place they purchased was far from ideal, an undistinguished box that sat at Seventh and College, on the margins of the central business district. But it embodied a commitment to projects with staying power. It also allowed curators to explore the full range of Charlotte’s history, an approach guided by the expansive vision of founder Sally Robinson. Inclusive history—history that presents multiple experiences and perspectives—requires space. Smaller-scale projects can effectively explore specific communities or themes. They cannot present a panoply of experience with the power and immediacy of a major exhibition.
Once the museum had a permanent space, it flourished. Curator Jean Johnson developed its signature “immersive” style, creating historical settings that encouraged visitors to linger, look, listen, and reflect. Historian Tom Hanchett drew on decades of cutting-edge scholarship to create the core exhibit, Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, which became the best (really the only) place for natives and newcomers to take in the full range of Charlotte’s post-Civil War history. President Emily Zimmern and staff members like Janeen Bryant and Kate Baillon pioneered the use of major exhibits as a focus for a broad range of programs, collaborations, and often-challenging conversations about the links between past and present—a strategy they called “using history to build community.”
Over the years, these efforts built a stellar national and international reputation. Courage, which dealt with school desegregation, won the American Alliance of Museums’ top “Excellence in Exhibition” prize, received a national Community Service Award presented by then-First Lady Laura Bush at the White House, and traveled around the country and the world. Changing Places, which examined the opportunities and challenges raised by the many newcomers arriving in the city from around the country and the world, won the AAM’s top prize for “Special Achievement in Community Engagement.”
K(NO)w Justice/K(NO)w Peace, an exhibit sparked by the 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the subsequent Charlotte Uprising, opened a mere five months after those fatal shots were fired. Curated by Charlotte native Brenda Tindal, now the executive director of Harvard University’s Museums of Science and Culture, the exhibit won the museum widespread acclaim for the speed of its reaction and the effectiveness of its approach.
The Uprising underscored a key point about the museum’s significance. History may be less visible on Charlotte’s streets than in places like Charleston or Chicago. But it still shapes our city. On the surface, we’re a nationally acclaimed boomtown, rife with opportunity. Underneath, we have one of the nation’s lowest rates of social mobility, in large part because the development strategies that sparked economic growth left so many neighborhoods, schools, and individuals behind. We have only begun to grapple with that history—work that will require the sort of substantial, expansive explorations on which the museum has built its reputation.
I am deeply concerned about the decision to sell the Levine’s building. In recent years, a nationwide debate over origins and commemoration has underscored the role that history and memory play in present-day policies and actions. If a new corporate tower rises at Seventh and College while our city’s most important historical institution scatters its artifacts to the winds, floats from space to borrowed space, and exists primarily in the fragmented, ephemeral online world, it will be a huge step backward. Digital endeavors, such as the just-introduced virtual reality recreation of the Brooklyn neighborhood, are a marvelous way to expand the museum’s reach. But history also needs solid ground.
Pamela Grundy is an independent historian who has lived in Charlotte since 1994. Exhibits she has curated for the Levine Museum include The Most Democratic Sport: Basketball and Culture in the Central Piedmont, Don’t Touch That Dial: Carolina Radio Since the 1920s, and Changing Places: From Black and White to Technicolor.