Destination: Kid-friendly history museum exhibit traces 14,000 years of N.C. history
Posted December 16, 2011
This fall, the N.C. Museum of History completed its largest exhibit yet: The Story of North Carolina.
The exhibit traces 14,000 years of North Carolina history. A portion of it opened earlier this year. The final piece takes visitors from the 1830s to today.
I visited for the first time a few weeks ago with my mom, six-year-old and two-year-old. What struck me about the exhibit immediately is just how kid friendly it is. The exhibits are peppered with interactive pieces where kids can press buttons to make things happen. They can milk a cow; walk through an actual house; study detailed dioramas; or get their picture taken as if they were a World War I soldier heading off to war. Destination: N.C. Museum of History's The Story of North Carolina
Unlike old-school exhibits with large panels covered in tiny print and artifacts under glass cases, the experience at The Story of North Carolina is much more immersive. The exhibit is designed for people of all ages, but creators had kids in fourth through eighth grade in mind as so many of the museum's visitors come in school groups.
"We made a real effort to have layering of information," Raelana Poteat, a history museum curator who worked on The Story of North Carolina. "We want people to not feel like it's a book on the wall. It's a very conscience effort to have short labels and at a reading level that's accessible to most of our visitors."
That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of information here. But the exhibit lets visitors decide just how much they want to learn or read. They can pour over every panel, which have no more than 85 words, watch one of the many videos or just walk through, browsing the exhibits.
Here are some of my favorite child-friendly parts of the exhibit:
- Treasure chest: This is actually in the first part of the exhibit. Kids can explore the hold of a pirate ship and open the lid of a treasure chest to find out what pirates really wanted when they looted ships.
- A house in a museum: One of the exhibit's largest artifacts is an actual house. The Robson-Moore-Whichard-Taylor House is the fourth-oldest-known house in North Carolina. The Pitt County dwelling was built in 1742 by Solomon Robson, a farmer and carpenter. Inside the house, visitors can see how people lived during the early 1800s and what household industries they worked in to help ends meet. The museum had the actual house disassembled and in storage until it was time to move it to the exhibit. The exhibit also features actual slave quarters, though visitors aren't able to walk through it.
- Milk a cow, count the eggs. Next to the Robson home, kids can take in some farm chores. A sign here puts farm life in perspective, listing all the chores a child might have to complete before breakfast. Kids can hear Buttercup the cow moo as they "milk" her, count eggs and feel the weight of a full bucket of water.
- Check out the dioramas: Scattered around the exhibit are very detailed dioramas that represent different points in North Carolina history. My six-year-old loves to study the scenes and could look at them for hours. Poteat, a mom of two, tells me that they can be great conversation starters between parents and kids. Poteat says parents can point out different parts and talk about what the people might be doing. I especially like the diorama of a camp meeting.
- Folk art sculptures: At the entrance to the newer section of the exhibit is a giant map of North Carolina dotted with small folk art sculptures, which visitors can operate with the press of a button. They each represent important parts of early North Carolina history, such as the growth of public education and the transportation network. Again, my two-year-old and six-year-old could spend hours here, watching the sculptures move and pressing the buttons.
- Textile room: Textile plays a big role in North Carolina history. The exhibit includes a replica of an actual textile mill. Using mirrors, the room creates the illusion that you're actually in a giant mill. Press a button and it feels like the floor is shaking and you see fibers flying through the air. (Just warn your kids that there will be a noise and some rattling if you think they might get jumpy). The area also includes photos of children who were in the mills because their parents worked there or they worked there.
- Get your picture taken: In the World War I section of the exhibit, you can get your picture taken as if you were a soldier heading off to war. Visitors can insert their face on top of a 3D replica of a soldier to get their photo taken. The completed picture is then rotated around on digital frames on the wall behind it. The 3D body spooked my kids a little bit, but, judging from the other photos in the rotation, it's been popular with children.
The Story of North Carolina is a permanent exhibit at the museum in downtown Raleigh, but Poteat says it won't be static. The museum will make changes to it over time. And, she says, it's something that visitors can come to again and again.
I agree. I've been several times since it opened and I see and learn something new every time.
For more about the exhibit, watch my interview with Poteat in the video and go to the museum's website.