App Museum closing on schedule without a new site
By Frank Ruggiero
The Appalachian Cultural Museum will soon join the ranks of the very memories it exhibits, when it closes its doors Saturday, March 11.
With a new location not yet secured, most of the museum’s artifacts will be placed into storage in Appalachian State University’s old Belk Library.
The museum, at its present location in University Hall, is closing to free up space for the university’s Institute for Health and Human Services, which will offer numerous clinics from existing departments on campus for use by the general public.
With an April Fool’s Day deadline, the museum must be moved out so the university can commence renovations to the space. The March 11 closing date gives museum staff time to appropriately pack the artifacts for storage.
In the meantime, the museum has stopped charging admission, and items in its gift shop have been discounted by 20 to 50 percent. According to museum curator Chuck Watkins, March 11 will be business as usual. The day after, though, will be a bit different.
As word began to spread about the move, Watkins began receiving phone calls from people who had lent their artifacts to the museum for display, and are now requesting them back in lieu of being placed in storage.
“We’ve had calls from a number of lenders,” Watkins said. “Junior Johnson, of course, has decided to remove his objects, along with a lot of people. And we’ve been contacting people whose objects are on loan to let them know.”
Watkins estimated about 60 percent of the museum’s artifacts are owned by the university, leaving 40 percent on loan. Furthermore, he said the majority of lenders are wanting their artifacts back. Naturally, Watkins hopes they’d be willing to continue to lend were the museum to find a new location.
“That’s not something we’ve really talked to them about, but there’s a great quote in the 1920s from a very famous museum director, John Cotton Dana, and he said, ‘It’s easy for a museum to get objects. It’s hard for a museum to get brains,’” Watkins said. “So, we would hope that people would be willing to continue to lend, if we needed their objects again.”
Regarding the search for a new building, ASU chief of staff Lorin Baumhover said nothing has changed just yet.
“We’re still looking very, very hard for an alternative site, and we would still prefer a downtown location, as we discussed,” he said. “And we’re spending an awful lot of time trying to make that happen.”
Though the university may have identified a couple potential sites, Baumhover was not at liberty to disclose their locations.
“With any real estate initiative, we’re trying to keep this information as confidential as possible,” he said. “We think it would serve the interests of the university and some of the folks we’re dealing with better if we didn’t announce what we were thinking about.”
Baumhover attested that university administration has not forsaken the museum, and that Chancellor Ken Peacock has been directly involved with meetings on the matter, as well as other key administrators. Plain and simple, the artifacts will have to be placed in storage while the university searches for a new site. Their stay in storage could be extended, Baumhover said, if the new site requires renovation.
In the meantime, he said the university is considering placing exhibits in the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts, the new Belk Library and possibly the Living/Learning Center.
Baumhover added that the university as hired a firm to assist with the impending move.
“We’re reviewing now which materials we own and which are on loan,” he said. “A letter will be sent from the provost to the donors, explaining what is happening with the museum, and that will happen fairly soon — probably this week.”
The March 3 meeting of the building search committee was canceled, but Watkins said another date will be scheduled soon. At that meeting, he expects to receive a report from John Sims, an internationally-recognized exhibit designer, who Watkins had spoken with in January.
Watkins described the report as a “preliminary think piece for what the new museum might look like.” Watkins anticipates the new museum will tell a different story.
“In the museum world, generally, what we have come to see as important, especially in the last 10 years, is people’s stories,” Watkins said. “We want to know more about individual people. Those individual stories, together, would help us to understand what is going on here today.”
The current museum tells a story, as well, but Watkins doesn’t see it as complete. The museum has been in University Hall since 1984 and first exhibited a base of objects — looms and pioneer pieces from a private owner — that had been housed in the old Appalachian Collection in the original Belk Library, Watkins said.
“But most of what we have on exhibit is material that we acquired after that,” he said. “From there, we did really, I think, what every good museum does, which is we wrote the story we wanted to tell, and then we found the artifacts that would enable us to tell that story.”
This is why 40 percent of the artifacts are on loan, Watkins said. They were borrowed to tell the story.
“The thing that we did, that really put us on the map, so to speak, in the museum world, was that we put the middle class back in Appalachia,” Watkins said.
“Up until that point, the way that museums talked about the region was to use that old stereotype of modern day pioneers living a lifestyle that was a survival from the frontier and, of course, that’s silly.”
So, the Appalachian Cultural Museum put entrepreneurs back in the story — entrepreneurs like Grover Robbins and his brothers, and John Ward, who owned the general store now housed in the museum.
“John Ward wasn’t only a storekeeper, but an inventor who had a patent on a movable cattle fence,” Watkins added.
Watkins said the museum did not simply showcase traditional “mountain” musicians, but rather well-known country musicians from Appalachia like Lulu Belle and Scotty, as well as composer Phillip Rhodes.
“We put people like James Dougherty in, who painted wonderfully evocative paintings of Daniel Boone,” Watkins continued.
“We put Junior Johnson in the museum and, according to Junior, we were the first museum to put race cars in an exhibit that wasn’t specifically about stock car racing.”
The museum has consistently made the argument that it takes objects traditionally considered “Appalachian objects” and exhibits them in a new light, Watkins said, mentioning how the museum exhibited butter churns as forms of sculpture.
“We took new objects and showed how they were Appalachian, like Styrofoam mushrooms from the Land of Oz (amusement park),” he said. “People thought it was strange that we’d bring the Land of Oz in the museum, but tourism is our number one economic engine up here, and how could you tell the story about regional economic growth if you don’t talk about tourism? And if you’re going to talk about tourism, you might as well talk about something that won a national prize as the best new tourist attraction in North America in 1970.”
The museum strives to capture the breadth of culture in the Appalachians, concentrating more on that than simply folk, Watkins said.
“Every other museum wanted to talk about how different Appalachian was from the rest of America,” he said. “What we tried to show was how similar Appalachian is — not simply to the rest of America, but to the rest of the world.”
Though the story is not complete, Watkins said it’s probably time for a different tale.
“The story that we told was an important one then, but I think in the 21st century, there are new questions to talk about, so I think that a new museum would necessarily look very different than this one,” he said.
For more information on the Appalachian Cultural Museum, call 262-3117 or visit www.museum.appstate.edu on the Web.