past & present of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center

The Year of The Museum

In Feature Stories, February 2018 by Mandy HowardLeave a Comment

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On the bicentennial of Raleigh’s first known museum, we celebrate all the incredible institutions transforming the city into one of the most exciting cultural destinations in the country.

The August 28, 1818 issue of the North-Carolina Star proudly announced the opening of the North Carolina Museum.

“This establishment is now open for the reception of visitors,” the announcement reads. It goes on to unabashedly solicit items. “Natural and artificial curiosities, sketches, maps, drawings and painting, rare coins and books, will be thankfully received and added to the collection.”

From these humble beginnings, Raleigh has garnered national attention, attracted international exhibits and has even earned the nickname the ‘Smithsonian of the South.’ Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh Museum, recently found the North-Carolina Star clip. He says that 2018, the bicentennial of the city’s first museum, “should be the year of the museum in Raleigh!”

Smithsonian of the South

Raleigh has rightfully merited the ‘Smithsonian of the South’ moniker, explains Ken Howard, director the North Carolina Museum of History for over a decade. It’s a title earned through the diversity of its museums and exhibits, as well as the museums’ accessibility to all.

“The Raleigh museum scene is expanding with constantly rotating exhibits at the NC Museum of History and the NC Museum of Art, and new dinosaurs are coming to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences,” Howard says. “I think we compare favorably to other cities, especially since our major museums have free admission for everyone, not just residents. Raleigh is rich with museums.”

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the NC Museum of History are neighbors, sharing the walkway of the scenic Bicentennial Plaza downtown. They also share the honor of being officially named Smithsonian affiliates, a designation awarded to museums dedicated to the Smithsonian mission: “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

With local history makers such as Daniel Boone, The Wright Brothers and Michael Jordan, it’s a given that North Carolina’s history museum will amaze any lover of state lore. Recently, the museum incorporated more interactive exhibits to great success. A quarter million visitors learned about the First World War at a recent exhibit which integrated their participation. Visitors could test themselves to see if they could put a gas mask on in time, or pick which ‘spoil of war’ wasn’t a real bomb.

Beginning at the end of June, the history museum will feature a collection of Durham native and NFL player Ernie Barnes’ paintings. A graduate of North Carolina Central University, Barnes sold out his first solo exhibition at New York City’s venerable Grand Central Art Galleries in 1966.

Just across the walkway, the Museum of Natural Sciences and Nature Research Center is the largest museum of its kind in the Southeast. The incredible three-story, 200,000-
square-foot facility has dozens of exhibits that have saved countless days for parents, teachers and caregivers looking to entertain and educate young ones. From animal story time—where kids can pet rabbits, snakes and hissing cockroaches—to flying whale skeletons and a mid-action dinosaur fight, this museum always inspires the imagination.

With all the incredible exhibits we’ve come to know and love, the science museum seeks to bring programs that will surprise, excite and educate. Mazes and Brain Games, a collection of 3D puzzles and brain-bending games, is just one example of a typically enigmatic exhibit that’s going on right now. Are you clever enough to unravel the riddles? Find out before it closes in September.

And though not an officially designated Smithsonian affiliate, our own City of Raleigh Museum (COR) is making a name for itself as a center of welcome, history and insight about the ever-growing City of Oaks.

Dollar, COR Museum’s director, says a significant gesture from the city showed him how serious Raleigh was about supporting its museums.

“We were originally part of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department,” he says, “but within a year, the department changed its name to Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. Since then [the city] has been incredibly supportive in giving the museum the resources it needs to become an innovative and influential municipal museum.”

In 2017, COR Museum welcomed nearly 40,000 visitors, the most since its founding in 1993. The museum hopes to break that record with a jam-packed schedule this year, including an exhibition called Underneath Cameron Village Shopping Center.

In the late 70s and 80s, influential music clubs including The Pier, Bear’s Den, The Frog and Nightgown, Elliot’s Nest, and Cafe Deja Vu hosted some of the biggest names in music and created a literal underground music scene in Raleigh. The exhibition will explore this historic phenomenon and in conjunction, COR Museum hopes to host oral history events and concerts, reuniting artists who got their start underneath Cameron Village.

For those following the Dix Park news, Dollar says COR Museum’s biggest exhibit opening in 2018 will explore the past and future of the Dorothea Dix campus, including the property’s storied past and the most up-to-date plans for the future. It will also give visitors an opportunity to give feedback on what they’d like to see Dix Park become.

“Its role in Raleigh can’t be underestimated and will certainly play a quintessential part in the city’s character in the years to come,” Dollar says.

National Recognition

Last year, Insider Magazine ranked the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) 13th on its list of top 25 museums in the country, a list that included museums of science, art and history narrowed down from the nation’s 35,000 recognized museums. The magazine used data compiled by Foursquare, a tech company that generates consumer-based ratings and recommendations using location technology. NCMA beat out the likes of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City and The Broad Museum in Los Angeles.

“That was a big-time deal,” says NCMA director Larry Wheeler, who recently announced he would be retiring this fall after nearly 25 years at the helm. “Out of these tens of thousands of people who voted, NCMA popped up as one of the top ten best.”

And it’s only getting better. In April, the museum will open You Are Here, an exhibition of gallery-sized projects from 14 contemporary artists that incorporate sound, light and movement to create an immersive experience for visitors. One such gallery will showcase an “infinity room” installation by internationally renowned artist Yayoi Kusama. The exhibition as a whole will comprise an entire floor of the museum’s temporary exhibition galleries.

“It’s never been done before in North Carolina and rarely in the United States,” Wheeler says. “I think what we’re doing will be the biggest of its kind ever done in the country.”

Meanwhile, downtown’s Marbles Kids Museum, which celebrates “hands-on, minds-on learning for children and families,” earned some recognition of its own. A national selection committee chose Marbles to host the Association of Children’s Museum (ACM) International Annual Conference this spring. Hundreds of children’s museum innovators and leaders from all over the world will gather in Raleigh for the Open Source Play: Sharing the Creative Code conference.

“Marbles’ selection is an amazing accomplishment for a museum that’s only ten years old,” says Taylor Rankin, a Marbles spokesperson.

Expanding Horizons

The national spotlight is shining favorably on Raleigh’s museums and there’s no better time for them to grow, both physically and in terms of creative expression. Last year, NC State’s Gregg Museum of Art & Design re-opened its doors in a new, standalone location. Museum planners spent two years traveling, researching and designing the new space, says Gregg director Roger Manley. After all, it’s not every day folks have an opportunity to plan a new museum.

“We looked at the Nasher (at Duke University), and I liked that the lobby is the central area and everything radiates out from that,” Manley says. “This offers the possibility of closing one gallery to install a new show without crippling the other parts of the museum. The Gregg will always have two shows in progress, with the potential for three or four at a time.”

The idea that the role of museums have broadened was another focus for the Gregg.

“Museums have become much more like community centers where there are opportunities to present a whole range of different activities and hit a wider range of demographic groups,” Manley says.

The upcoming exhibition Business as Usual, a collection of lifelike wood sculptures from North Carolina artist Bob Trotman, exemplifies this idea.

“Calling them wood carvings is hard to wrap your brain around because a lot of them are kinetic,” says Manley. “As you walk up to them, a motion detector will sense your presence and the sculpture will do something.”

CAM Raleigh, downtown’s contemporary art museum, has cultivated a reputation for showing memorable, one-of-a-kind pieces. Less than a decade old, CAM has quickly become the favorite gallery for many Raleighites. Its goal is “to spark new thinking by creating ever-changing experiences that explore what’s now and nearing.”

Gab Smith, CAM’s executive director, is looking forward to introducing more and more new, living and working artists to North Carolinians. Margaret Bowland, a Brooklyn-based fine artist is one, and her exhibition opens March 1. Bowland’s beautiful, provocative paintings were recently spotlighted at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

“It will be [her] first ever exhibition in North Carolina,” Smith says. “We can’t wait to share her incredible painting with Raleigh!”

You can’t expand horizons without knocking down some boundaries, and breaking down barriers to artistic endeavor is exactly what downtown visual arts center, Artspace, is all about. Opened in 1986, this 30,000 square foot facility houses space for artists to work, exhibitions to inspire the public and classes and workshops to further facilitate creative works. And it continues to redefine what experiencing art means. For example, this spring and summer, Artspace will be hosting FRESH, a bi-annual event which invites the public to a unique learning opportunity about how art is chosen for an exhibition.

Ileana Rodriguez, Director of Communications for Artspace explains, “From May 18th-26th, we display all of the submitted works so visitors and artists can view each of the 100+ pieces of art that could be included in the show. Then, we work with a local curator or arts professional who selects a smaller group of work that becomes an exhibition that runs June 1st-30th. The idea is that everyone gets to see the before and the after, which is rare!”

Smith sums up our fortune as a city, “Raleigh’s museums are fantastic. There are so many free options and really terrific programming for all ages. We are fortunate to live in a city that champions arts and culture and tries to ensure that everyone that lives here has access to it.”

Rodriguez adds, “We’re so lucky that our city truly supports the arts. As Raleigh continuously lands on best of and top 10 lists, I have to think that the creative spirit that drives so many of us is a big part of why Raleigh continues to attract smart, driven, creative people to the area.”

With all these options, resident of Raleigh, citizen of the Smithsonian of the South, the only question is, on the 200th birthday of museums in Raleigh, which exhibit will be your favorite?

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