When staff at Tryon Palace, a state historic site in New Bern with a collection of historic buildings and the new N.C. History Center, invited me out for a look, I jumped at the chance.
I'm a sucker for most anything historic after growing up in a house built in the 1790s and eventually majoring in history in college. But I also knew the site had opened the History Center last fall, a 60,000-square-foot building dedicated to the history of North Carolina with interactive exhibits that aim to tell history in a different way.
"It really revolutionizes the visitor experience," Brandon Anderson, the site's curator of interpretation, tells me.
It truly does. You'll find innovative exhibits here with giant screens and videos where visitors are encouraged to help out characters and learn a bit about history while they're doing it. Then you can walk over to the palace itself, where you'll find costumed guides telling the stories of the people who once lived there.
I visited in August with my six-year-old, one-year-old and mom. For my six-year-old, that mix of flashy exhibits and old-school living historians was just right. The videos and interactive exhibits got her excited about what she was learning so she was even more attentive when we moved on to the tours in the historic buildings. Destination: Tryon Palace
Our first stop was the Pepsi Family Center inside the History Center where activities are designed for school-age children. With a whir of pictures and sounds, a "time machine" takes you from present day to a river village in the state's central coastal region circa 1835. From there, you walk into the recreated village complete with a dry goods store, ship, turpentine still, kitchen, quilting bee and print shop.
At each of these stations, visitors interact with a series of video screens and computers. On a big screen in the kitchen, for instance, an actress playing a cook asks you to find ingredients for a recipe. In the dry goods store, you help the storekeeper find items for customers.
My six-year-old spent more than 90 minutes in here and she could have spent even more time. She was absolutely enthralled with the stories and characters on the videos. And she loved searching through the store and kitchen, especially, for the ingredients and items.
While most history museums offer touch screens and digital displays, the activities here were much more effective. My daughter really enjoyed being brought into the story and becoming a part of it. It helped make the stories and history lessons more accessible to her.
The History Center also includes the Regional History Museum, which explores the history of the state's central coastal region with historical artifacts, graphics, audio and touch screens. There's a central gathering space, cafe, store and performance spaces. Outside, in the back of the center, you'll find a wooden ship for kids to climb on when they need to get outside and run around a bit.
Tryon Palace, along with a collection of other historic buildings, sits a couple of blocks away from the History Center. The palace is a recreation of the original house, built between 1767 and 1770 by Royal Gov. William Tryon. It was North Carolina's first official capitol and was destroyed by fire in 1798.
Tours of the palace are always guided and take about 45 minutes. My kids were the only ones on our tour, but our very nice guide, dressed in period costume, made sure to point out things of interest to my six-year-old and ask her questions about what we were looking at.
It was the same experience in the kitchen building next door to the palace. In the kitchen, another guide put my daughter to work grinding nutmeg while she talked to the rest of us about what she was cooking and what the cook's job would have entailed centuries ago. When I finally pulled my daughter away from the nutmeg, another woman showed her how to weave upstairs.
By then, we were five hours into our visit. My six-year-old was ready for more. Unfortunately, the toddler was ready for a nap. So we started the two-hour trip home. You could easily spend a full day at Tryon Palace, exploring the other historic buildings and strolling through the 16 acres of gardens. Once my toddler drops her afternoon nap, we'll be back.
Like the state's other historic sites, Tryon Palace offers a variety of special events and programs throughout the year. A Fall Family Day is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Oct. 15. There will be interactive crafts and activities that celebrate being a kid in the 18th and 19th centuries. Activities are designed for school-age children. Click here for details.
Homeschoolers should mark their calendars for May 7. The palace's spring homeschool day will explore the many conflicts that North Carolina has encountered in the past. Check the Tryon Palace website for details about homeschool day as it gets closer to the date.
A one-day pass to Tryon Palace, at 529 S. Front St. in New Bern, is $15 for adults and $6 for kids in grades one through twelve. Watch the video to learn more about the palace.