Harvesting the Past at the North Carolina Museum of History
With the ease of the Internet, the convenience of technology and societal innovations, it’s hard to imagine what North Carolina looked like more than 14,000 years ago. Visitors to the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh don’t have to imagine – they can step deep into North Carolina’s past through engaging, interactive exhibits.
“The North Carolina Museum of History was founded in 1902 by Frederick A. Olds, who traveled to every county in the state gathering objects and stories of North Carolinians, so others could learn about the state’s heritage,” says Susan Lamb, public information officer for the museum.
In the early 1900s, the museum was called the Hall of History. After many changes and growth over the years, it became the North Carolina Museum of History in 1965. The museum’s current building, located at 5 East Edenton St., opened in 1994 and features a research library, classroom spaces, a 315-seat auditorium, 55,000 square feet of gallery space, design shops, conservation labs and more.
Today, the museum consistently ranks as one of the state’s most popular destinations, as evidenced by the more than 421,000 visitors during the 2014-15 fiscal year. Guests can enjoy a range of interesting and exciting exhibits, both permanent and short-term. But Lamb says the museum’s largest exhibit is also one of its best – the award-winning The Story of North Carolina.
“This exhibit stands as the only permanent exhibit in North Carolina that traces the history of the entire state, from its earliest inhabitants to the 20th century,” she says. “It opened in 2011 and continues to receive rave reviews.”
The interactive exhibit includes hands-on components, like the sounds and feels of a 20th-century textile mill, as well as dioramas, videos and two full-sized historic houses.
Lamb says a few other popular, permanent exhibits include the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, A Call to Arms: North Carolina Military History and History in Every Direction: Tar Heel Junior Historian Association Discovery Gallery.
Though the museum is filled with educational, intriguing displays at every turn, one of the most influential exhibits is the History of Harvest exhibit, teaching the connection to North Carolina’s agricultural past, present and future.
Construction on the exhibit began in early 2007, spearheaded by Youth Programs Coordinator Emily Grant. It was completed in 2012.
“Agriculture has been an important part of North Carolina history, and it continues to shape the present and future of our state,” Grant says. “As a history museum, we strive to connect people with this important topic through ongoing exhibits, hands-on public programs, and interesting agriculture facts and stories on our website and social media sites.”
The museum partnered with agrochemical and seed company Syngenta for the exhibit, which serves as an outdoor classroom to teach visitors more about agriculture in North Carolina.
Museum-goers can learn about everything from medicinal plants first grown by American Indians to modern corn hybrids that are developed using plant-breeding technology. The exhibit also covers current agricultural benefits, such as how the industry contributes to North Carolina’s economy, its role in global hunger and sustainability.
History of Harvest is broken up into six sections, with planting beds for each. Nature’s Gardens and Gardens of Life and Health focus on medicinal and culinary plants introduced by early settlers. Early Agriculture displays the trifecta of corn, beans and squash, commonly referred to as the “three sisters” because of how they benefit each other. Changing Landscapes features historical North Carolina cash crops tobacco and cotton, as well as sweet potatoes, sorghum and peanuts. From Field to Lab demonstrates agricultural biotechnology, and Symbols of the State includes agricultural state symbols such as the dogwood tree, blueberries and more.
To ensure they bring the best information available, Grant says they work with a variety of sources.
“We collaborate with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, N.C. State University programs, local farmers, historians, and more to bring viewpoints and expertise to the public,” she says.
And just as North Carolina’s agricultural landscape is always changing, Grant says the exhibit is too.
“A living exhibit like History of Harvest takes an ongoing commitment of time, care, expertise and resources to provide an educational experience year round in an environment that is always changing,” she says.