Josh Hager, State Archives of North Carolina 2016-01-19 17:58:47
On a brisk October night in Raleigh, as the North Carolina Museum of History closed after a full Friday of visitors, one exhibit officially opened its doors. Donors and dignitaries arrived at the museum and proceeded to the third floor gallery to view items never before displayed together in a major public setting. As the night progressed, the crowd heard remarks from organizational leaders and from guest of honor David Ferriero. Why did the Archivist of the United States join the rest of the dignitaries that night? They were welcoming a new installation, Treasures of Carolina: Stories from the State Archives, the state’s largest archival outreach undertaking. On October 23, 2015, the exhibit became a reality, but the effort leading up to that point was herculean. This is the story of how the State Archives of North Carolina (SANC) and the North Carolina Museum of History (MOH) made this pioneering installation a reality—and why we hope its message to visitors is that every record is a treasure. The Right Collaborator The inspiration for installing a large-scale exhibit came in two phases to SANC leadership. Outreach and Development Coordinator Andrea Gabriel first had the idea to collect a representative sample of SANC’s holdings after coming across a catalog that the Library of Virginia had published in 1997 as part of their exhibition in the state museum. At first, Gabriel only envisioned producing a similar catalog, but discussions with former State Archivist Dick Lankford and current State Archivist Sarah Koonts inspired the larger goal of installing a first-of- its-kind exhibition of SANC’s holdings. In 2012, SANC decided to formally pursue an installation at the North Carolina Museum of History. An exhibition there would prove quite valuable, as a recent study revealed that, with more than 335,000 visitors in 2015, MOH was the third most-visited state history museum in the nation—behind only state museums in Texas and Hawaii. In two years, the museum has drawn visitors from all 100 North Carolina counties, all 50 states, and 61 countries. In addition, MOH is a Smithsonian Affiliate. For the SANC exhibit to become feasible required a new level of collaboration between MOH and SANC. The museum, which is located diagonally across from SANC, had previously included SANC items in various exhibits, but had never presented an exhibit dedicated solely to archival items. Both groups, however, agreed on the merits of the installation, and MOH staff slotted SANC Into one of the third floor galleries with a tentative opening date of fall 2015. Three Themes Arise Once SANC staff got the greenlight for the exhibit, the first and most important question was why we should create a large exhibit. SANC staff knew they wanted to emphasize the institution’s dual role as both a center for historical research and an active government agency responsible for collecting and maintaining the current records of state government. The SANC leadership’s concept of the exhibit is Summarized by Gabriel: “The impetus behind this exhibit was to demonstrate to the visitor the role of the State Archives in preserving evidentiary materials that protect rights and liberties, document government actions and decisions, and chronicle the history of North Carolina.” The three core ideas of that concept—showing how records protect rights and liberties, document government transparency, and chronicle North Carolina history—became the thematic backbone of the exhibit. When selecting items for inclusion, each had to specifically address one or more of those three themes. For example, staff members decided to showcase a map from the court records of the trial of Tom Dula, the former Confederate soldier who faced murder charges in Wilkes County and who would become the basis for the hit song by The Kingston Trio, “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley.” This map possesses a historical significance due to the notoriety of the case, but its inclusion also allowed for a discussion of what kind of records come out of trials as a part of the government transparency theme. Another item selected for inclusion is not a record but an image with which archivists are well-acquainted: the life-cycle of a record. This model is included in the government transparency section as a way to explain to the general public that, while not all records created by government are kept permanently, transparency is ensured through the maintenance of those records deemed to have permanent value in retention schedules. Amidst the process of item selection, one issue kept resurfacing again and again: What should we name the exhibit? SANC staff Wanted to avoid any phraseology that would connote that certain items are worthy of exhibition over others and instead emphasize the totality of the records and the stories that researchers can find in every record. MOH staff wanted a short title that would work from a marketing standpoint to generate interest from visitors who were not familiar with archives or their holdings. In the end, both ideas merged to create Treasures of Carolina: Stories from the State Archives, which also helped shape exhibit design. SANC staff decided to use high-profile “wow” documents on a rotating schedule to increase interest in the more routine records also included in the exhibit. The goal was to make visitors realize that each record in the SANC is a treasure to someone. From Ideation to Creation Now the immense challenge of tackling the nuts and bolts of exhibit creation loomed over us. The logistics of exhibit design required an unprecedented level of collaboration. SANC staff from all of its component divisions contributed to the effort as well as staff members from the MOH and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR, the parent department for both SANC and the MOH). The first category of tasks was selecting items, merging “wow” documents with more ordinary examples that illustrate the dayto- day operation of SANC. Working closely with the item selection team were the content writers, who created the text for the labels in the exhibit, and the conservation team, who ensured that original items could safely travel to the exhibit and live on display for over half a year. Digital reproduction staff produced high-quality scans for use where originals could not handle the stress of exhibition. MOH staff worked closely with SANC staff to create the structures for the exhibit, including hanging wall panels, a large title panel that includes donor acknowledgements, and two multimedia stations (one for oral history and another for GIS data). Outside the exhibit walls, the marketing team for SANC worked with staff from the MOH and NCDNCR to contact interested individuals, generate press coverage, craft press releases, plan a pre-opening media event, and coordinate the opening reception. The marketing team also worked with the Friends of the Archives, a nonprofit private organization, to fundraise for the exhibit’s costs. Finally, Gabriel led a team to compile a more exhaustive catalog to accompany the exhibit. Staff members from all three institutions worked on one or more of these tasks; each category could not operate in isolation as the exhibit went from idea to installation. A Story to Tell The exhibit and the catalog have received rave reviews from visitors, some of whom are learning about the existence of the SANC for the first time. Although the exhibit has only been open for a few months, we already have learned some crucial lessons. An exhibit like this requires an all-in effort as soon as it is confirmed. For example, fundraising could have benefitted from a stronger push in the early days of planning. In addition, it is essential to work with exhibit professionals who know how to plan the logistics of preparation and installation. We are grateful that MOH staff contributed their time to this project to help it succeed. Finally, we learned just how important having a story to tell is when creating such a major outreach project. It is not enough to want to show off what a repository holds; rather, why do those items matter to a specific audience? Fittingly, in the preface to the exhibit catalog, State Archivist Sarah Koonts provides the denouement to this exhibit’s story: “I hope that in providing a look at these North Carolina treasures—ordinary and extraordinary—the reader gains an understanding of the rich legacy we protect, that records do matter, and that every record is a treasure.” The Treasures of Carolina: Stories from the State Archives runs through June 19, 2016, in Raleigh, NC. Come visit!
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