Monthly Archives: July 2012

Cementing Relationships

In April Jeanne McGuire, Office Manager at F.Patrick McGuire, D.D.S. of Sylva, North Carolina, contacted Pam Meister, Curator at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center in Cullowee, with an unusual request. She wanted to set up a time for the entire staff to volunteer at the museum. Why volunteering? McGuire hoped that an afternoon out of the office working together, rather than in separate treatment spaces, would be a team-building experience.

Why the Mountain Heritage Center? The McGuire family has a fascinating history and artifact legacy, partially housed at the museum. In 1908 Daisy McGuire, Patrick McGuire’s grandmother, became the first woman licensed to practice dentistry in North Carolina. She continued practicing until the age of 97. She was not only the daughter of a dentist, but her husband, two of her daughters, and two of her grandsons also became dentists.

The Mountain Heritage Center’s collection contains 69 artifacts relating to this pioneering professional, ranging from a dentist chair and Dr. Daisy’s medicine bag to dental implements, medicines, a false teeth sample case (pictured here), and molds for making false teeth.

Curator Pam Meister explains collections needs to McGuire Dentistry volunteers.

Always on the lookout for new ways to engage audiences, Meister readily accepted McGuire’s offer. Given that dental office staff members specialize in precise, meticulous, and hygienic work, Meister knew that their skills would be a good fit for collections storage cleaning projects. Dr. McGuire and his staff were indeed able to accomplish a set of important tasks.

Strengthening your institution’s connection to its community does not only involve outreach to new groups. Equally important is a sustained effort toward cementing and building upon existing relationships. By being open and willing to accommodate the needs of an unusual interest group, Meister was able to accomplish much more than a clean storage area. She was able to invest more of the McGuire family’s hearts and hands in the Mountain Heritage Center.


Building Partnerships

Thanks to Matt Edwards and Amy Snyder of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History for sharing the following image and story.

Partnerships can help extend the reach of non-profits and shore up the weaknesses of individual organizations. Any staff member of a cultural heritage institution seeking grant money quickly learns the importance of organizational partnerships to boost the competitiveness of projects. For small museums, especially, partnerships are critical for any form of capacity building. And while cooperating with other cultural institutions is nearly always a win-win, sometimes the partnerships you can build in other sectors can be the most fruitful for accomplishing specific projects.

Director Matt Edwards of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History sets a great example for partnership building. The above log cabin, made from coated ethafoam in the museum’s children’s gallery, is the product of one of many partnerships Edwards has built during his three years on the job. Edwards first got the idea during a visit to the Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem, where he encountered a similar structure. His research showed that such pre-fabricated foam cabins had been discontinued. Rather than give up on the idea, he reached out to two local foam factories, Hibco Plastics and NCFI, and spoke with the owners/ managers about producing a similar interactive for the Mount Airy Museum. Hibco’s owner took it from there, even going as far as notching the foam “logs” himself. NCFI provided the colored spray-coating before delivering them to the museum.

The log cabin form relates to some of the museum’s interpretive themes and ignites both children’s creativity and their gross motor maneuverings. Moreover, it is an apt emblem for project-based partnerships between small museums and other businesses and groups within their communities. Like these partnerships, the cabin gets built, disassembled, and reconfigured all the time, depending on the vision of the builder.

What community partnerships have been the most productive for your institution? What projects have you achieved that your institution couldn’t have completed alone?

NCDCR Reseach Historian Ansley Wegner has written about North Carolina’s 3 sets of Siamese twins–including the eponymous Chang & Eng, who settled near Mount Airy. Their fascinating stories would make a great topic for an exhibit to travel around our state.

Adventures in North Carolina Culture

I don’t think that many people are aware that the two most famous sets of conjoined twins in the 19th century called North Carolina home – Chang and Eng Bunker (the original Siamese Twins) and Millie-Christine McKoy (the Carolina Twins or the Two-Headed Nightingale).

Chang and Eng Bunker, born in Thailand (then Siam) in 1811, amassed a fortune for themselves on the circus and exhibition circuit and retired to North Carolina in 1839.

They first lived in Wilkes County, where they married sisters Sarah and Adelaide Yates. With growing families, the brothers purchased land in Surry County and built large homes a little over a mile apart. For the rest of their lives they spent 3 nights at one house and then 3 nights at the other.

If you visit the Andy Griffith Playhouse  in Mount Airy you can see a large collection of Siamese Twin memorabilia. The North Carolina…

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New Uses for Old Typewriters

Typewriters have become so obsolete that they are artifacts in many cultural heritage museum collections. While it’s laudable to preserve those with rich provenances related to your institutional mission, it maybe worthwhile considering acquiring others for your site’s education collection. Several museums around the country have developed exhibit interactives and comment boards by using typewriters. The surprising thing about this activity is its attractiveness to Generations Y and young children. Youths know computer keyboarding well and a typewriter appears just familiar enough, yet different, to be intriguing.

Contents of Thomas Wolfe’s New York apartment in Hotel Chelsea on exhibit at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site

In addition to the way a useable typewriter beckons many visitors, these machines have two advantages as exhibition interactives.

  1. Affordability: Many selections are available on ebay for well under $100. Interested community members or businesses may even have some available to donate to your institution’s educational cause.
  2. Versatility: The typewriter relates to a variety of potential exhibition themes—antiquated office activities and literature production being among the more obvious. North Carolina has a wealth of writers from all regions of the state. Although representing them with non-book 3-dimensional objects can be a challenge, a typewriter interactive would be appropriate for those working in the late 19th – the late 20th centuries.

Letters to friends and family can be another topic that relates to many exhibit themes. Writing love letters on a typewriter was recently one of three participatory components of a “Love Lounge,” part of a larger exhibition on love in a California Museum. The museum’s director, Nina Simon, reported that it was “sleeper surprise” success and served as a quality participatory experience, rather than a quantity one. Although a small proportion of visitors chose the activity, those who did tended to work with it for awhile.

One potential disadvantage is the maintenance and repair involved in typewriters as participatory elements. Simon’s museum experienced many breakdowns, but always found visitors willing to help staff fix the machines. Ribbon jumping was the most common problem. For other museums planning this type of interactive, Simon recommends taking typewriters into repair shops for “tune-ups” and trying to “ruggedize” them somehow before the show opens.

Of course, part of this participatory idea is having a bulletin board, or even a string with clothespins, where typists can display their own work and ideas. Has your institution tried this type of interactive? If so, would you recommend it?

Photo credits: and

Managing Touch

Handling is an unmistakable danger to collections. Not only can people break objects and otherwise introduce stress, but hand oils can corrode metals and degrade materials in other ways. Just as museums must manage other collections dangers such as light, some institutions have found ways to manage the danger of handling.

Proscriptions against touching limit a museum patron’s ability to appreciate an object, and prohibiting tactile experiences denies a level of access. For institutions that receive high volumes of visitation and for especially fragile or priceless treasures, limits are necessary for preservation. Clearly, not everyone can touch every material in most collections.

Part of the appeal for many of us working with cultural heritage collections is the privileged intimacy we are allowed to have with artifacts. We have been trained in proper handling techniques, and we keep storage doors locked, collections enclosed in archival housings, and display cases sealed. Yet, as important as it is to perpetuate collections stewardship, it is also important to strategize forms of access. We must weigh the short-term benefits of access against the long-term costs to preservation. Are there certain times when or materials for which we can grant access? Some institutions maintain separate education collections and allow visitors to handle those objects during public programs. Other institutions provide certain groups occasional opportunities to handle artifacts.

The impetus to provide museum experiences for the visually impaired has led to the creation of special touch tour programs as well as a Touchable Gallery at the Duke Eye Center. Trained volunteers staff the gallery and guide visitors in handling and learning about the objects in regularly changing exhibits. Despite the focus on handling that is part of the gallery’s mission, losses have been few and far between. Coordinator Betty Haskin (pictured above) knows of only one object broken and another stolen. The Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NCSU offers “Touch Tours” upon request. Tours allow participants to handle a combination of original objects and reproductions and also rely on music and sound in order to convey interpretive messages.

Objects’ ceremonial functions might also justify touching by certain groups at certain times. Some tribal groups have claims on specific collection materials, and there are repositories which allow them access for relevant ceremonies. This limited handling allows participants to channel the artifacts’ votive-like power, but in cases of artifacts with natural history elements, there is often mutual risk to the handlers.

How does your institution manage touch? Does it grant access for special events or to specific groups? What could a touch tour at your site include?

For more discussion on managing touch in museums, see The Power of Touch, ed. by Elizabeth Pye, Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007.

Building Storage Capacity

Staff at most cultural heritage institutions describe their collections storage space as inadequate. Reconfiguring, re-housing, renovating, and building anew are all possible solutions. Obviously, space and budget present perennial challenges.

storage at Orange County Historical Museum

Square Footage: If you plan on building new storage estimate the space you’ll need by adding the square footage of your current storage space + estimated square footage for the last 10 years’ of accessions + an additional 20% of square footage. The second figure represents future growth at your current pace, while the third figure accounts for the sudden jump in accessions that is likely once your new space is complete. Potential artifact donors you have attempted to re-route by telling them you cannot accept, based on lack of storage space or an impending move, will try again. New donors will surface as the result of your new space’s publicity.

Budget: Building Museums: A Handbook for Small and Midsize Organizations by Herskovitz, Glines, and Grabitske (Minnesota Historical Society, 2012) suggests an important caution. Even if your building project includes energy-efficient systems, “potential savings may well be offset by the new facility’s larger size. Most expansion projects result in additional annual costs for employees, cleaning and maintenance, supplies, [and] insurance.” (p. 16) To read about several museums which built beyond their capacities to sustain, click here

Most cultural heritage collections could use additional storage space, but institutions are unlikely to fund capital projects, especially in the current economic climate. Here are 3 ideas to increase storage space within your current storage area.

1. Deaccession: If you maintain a regular inventory cycle, you have a good idea of what is in your collection and what objects have either a weak relationship to your institution’s mission or severe condition problems. Depending upon your collection policy, you may be able to deaccession some of these materials, leaving more space for storage.

2. Move office workstation to another area. This will not only free up space, but will also allow you to set the storage thermostat to a cooler temperature, at least during the winter months.

available from Uline and other industrial suppliers

3. Install compact shelving: state-of-the-art mobile shelving units can be cost prohibitive for most institutions. Instead, it may be feasible to purchase sturdy industrial shelving on lockable casters. This is the system the Orange County Historical Museum uses (shown above). For many collection items, these shelves will allow you to achieve compact storage manually.

Establishing and organizing takes good planning and meticulous hard work. What strategies have proven helpful at your institution? Do you have additional advice to share?

Inventorying Ins and Outs

Collections inventories are essential to harness both intellectual and physical control of an institution’s collections. Accurate information on a collection’s size and scope is a crucial element in discussions of an institution’s significance. The qualitative and quantitative data an inventory generates is especially useful when working with potential grantors, donors, and other stakeholders.

How often should an inventory occur? Appropriate intervals depend upon the size of an institution’s collection and the capacity of its staff: National Park Service standards include a random sample inventory each year to ensure the maintenance of good records and a 100% annual inventory if a site has fewer than 250 accessioned items or has a backlog of uncataloged objects. Some institutions have an inventory system that provides for the verification of records for a section or percentage of the collection each year. For especially large collections, a full inventory may be completed in 10-year cycles.

What is the best time of year to conduct an inventory? The answer depends on when your institution’s lowest visitation levels occur. For some institutions, winter may be the slow season, but for others, fewer field trips leave summer more open.

Intern Meredith Jones hard at work during OCHM’s summer collection inventory

The Orange County Historical Museum staff is currently inventorying its collections. For OCHM, summer not only made sense as a result of fewer school field trips, but also because graduate students from local museum studies programs are more available to help with the project. Director Brandie Fields estimates that the museum houses 3,000 objects, including archival materials. The museum formally accessioned its holdings in the 1980s but the all-volunteer staff stopped keeping records in the mid-1990s. Over the last decade since the organization hired its first director, record-keeping has been spotty. Fields began in her position a year ago and gaining a more detailed understanding of the collection’s size and scope is one of her big goals for the inventory project.

A close second after the goal of intellectual control (knowing what you have) is physical control (being able to access it). Fields intends to establish accurate location records for each object in order to be able to find artifacts and fulfill various requests. A tertiary goal is to assess condition problems and flag artifact groups for future re-housing projects. Additionally, Fields and her staff have made small storage improvements as they proceed with the inventory. In some cases, they have been able to unwrap objects within boxes and create dividers between each one out of tissue and/ or archival board. This allows for increased visual access, less future handling, and more cushioning between each artifact.

How often does your institution conduct inventories? Can you recommend any inventorying techniques that may be helpful to others working in North Carolina cultural heritage collections?

Research Discovery at Historic Oak View

This post is by Sara E. Drumheller, Assistant Park Manager, and Katie Spencer, Education Aide.

 About a year ago, Historic Oak View County Park experienced a major breakthrough when we discovered the names of eight people who were enslaved on the farm prior to the Civil War. The names of these people were scattered in documents long held by the Wake County Register of Deeds, but recently made available online. Oak View staff first found the name, age, and record of sale of a woman named Eliza, unexpectedly, when they were searching the database for land records. Prior to this discovery, we knew very little about the people who were enslaved at on the farm and consequently, their lives here were little represented in interpretive material around the park.

detail from document dated 12/12/1840

Our discovery of Eliza prompted a tireless search through deeds associated with the farm to gather as much information as possible. We found the names of 8 out of 12 of the men, women, and children who were enslaved at Oak View: Eliza, Isabella, Walt, Levy, Sandy, Patsy, Sam, and Celia. We then revisited the records that were already in our archives, using our new information to fill in some of the gaps. Names from Census records after the Civil War took on new significance as we found former slaves sharecropping at Oak View, leaving to live in other parts of the county, or in one instance, purchasing a parcel of Oak View land. Eliza appeared with her husband Reddick, who was enslaved on a farm nearby and testified on the Williams’ behalf in their post-civil war plea for reimbursement for losses in the war.

This new information not only allowed us to fill out our knowledge of antebellum Oak View, it inspired a more personal approach to our interpretation of the park. We undertook a major genealogy effort in order to connect with families descended from Eliza, Levy, and the others. We learned information about other farms and people who were enslaved there, and we worked with local churches to share that information. In return, the community shared their knowledge of the history of the area. We are now planning a permanent exhibit that will focus on the people who lived and worked on the farm, rather than only the agricultural history of the region. This personal approach is a new chapter In Oak View’s interpretive focus. By putting Oak View people at the center of our exhibit, we will be able to provide visitors with an opportunity to step into their shoes and imagine their lives many years ago. Their stories and experiences are windows into the past; they do not offer a bird’s eye view or a complete narrative, but what they do provide is rich, meaningful, and personal.

Independence Day Commemorations

Southport, NC: photo by Mike Spencer, Star News

Along with fire trucks and marching bands, communities often want to showcase history at 4th of July parades. When commemorations intersect with crowds, history organizations have opportunities to engage new audiences. Revolutionary War re-enactors are common in many of North Carolina’s Independence Day events. Museums and historical societies should take advantage of the occasion too.


from “Sixty Four Selected Views of Western North Carolina,” circa 1915, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, UNC at Asheville, F261.S69

In addition to celebrating the United States’ founding, our state has some special 4th of July history to share and to promote. Sir Walter Raleigh’s first American expedition reached land along the coast of what became North Carolina on July 4, 1584–nearly 2 centuries before the Declaration of Independence. North Carolina can also boast two earlier Declarations of Independence, with the Liberty Point Resolves (June 1775) near Fayetteville and the Halifax Resolves (April 1776).

According to Smithsonian curator Roger Launius, public historians have the obligation to respond to the commemorative enthusiasm of various interest groups and to ensure historical accuracy in presentations. Here are a few ideas to get you in the Independence Day spirit and to initiate the planning process for next year’s 4th of July:

photo by Mike Spencer, Star News

A historically themed float will heighten your organization’s visibility. What could you do or create for the parade to engage your community and to further your institutional mission? The Southport Historical Society promotes its organization during that town’s huge 4th of July Festival parade. Nearly 100 years ago, young female descendants of the signers of the 1775 Liberty Point Resolves rode in a Fayetteville parade standing on a float in tableau form to illustrate the ideal of Liberty and to remind spectators of a dramatic episode in local history.

  • If your museum is near the festivities, try offering a break from the heat outside with a small Independence-Day-related exhibit or an educational program. North Carolina is rich in significant events of the Revolutionary War and the holiday is prime time to capture visitor interest in these topics.


    Even if your site does not relate to the colonial and early national period, 4th of July commemorative artifacts can form interesting exhibits. This Whig campaign flag from Greensboro debuted at a 4th of July ceremony in 1830. The Ladies of Edgeworth Seminary made the flag and presented it to the gentlemen of the Guilford Tippecanoe Club. A North Carolina alternate delegate wore this badge at the 1900 Democratic National Convention on July 4, 1900 in Kansas City, Missouri. Both past events linked to the significance of Independence Day in order to ally political party activities with the United States’ founding principles.

  • Set up a selling stand for concessions, crafts, and/ or other souvenirs that your organization has produced. Perhaps postcards reproduced  from the NC state toast image above (with the Ramsey Library’s permission) would make good gift items to sell. Ideally these will not only generate revenue for your institution, but also the products should connect to the cultural heritage that anchors your organization’s mission. Staff at the stand should be able to provide interested patrons with more information about your historic site and allow them to sign up for newsletters or other forms of involvement.

Make sure you have a visible presence in your community’s history-related celebrations and that your institution’s mission becomes a part of the public’s awareness of local history. What does your organization do for the 4th of July? Which activities have been the most successful in your area?