Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Never Underestimate The Power of Artifacts

Some really cool people are making the Museum of Durham History a reality.  But from the outset, a few have been petrified of being in the “artifact” business.

Granted I am an artifact junkie.  In my former career, I kidded unmercifully the now retired head of our local science museum for giving away a very cool 1942 DC-3 to another museum.

It had been purchased from the military by Western Airlines the year before I was born and then sold to Piedmont Airlines in North Carolina and flown as the Potomac Pacemaker from 1956, when I was the age of my grandsons now, until 1965 when I was a senior in high school.

During that span, the plane most certainly flew in and out of RDU International Airport which is co-owned by Durham, but through Raleigh subterfuge (see page 6), the other co-owner had the name  switched out of alphabetical order.

In fact, in the image below, that very well could be the Potomac Pacemaker sitting in front of the RDU terminal in the late 1950s.  Piedmont few in and out of RDU from the airline’s inception in 1948 when it was founded in Winston-Salem, NC.

When I was growing up, we either took livestock for auction to Bozeman or Idaho Falls which are very roughly equidistant from our ancestral ranch in the Yellowstone—Teton nook of Idaho.

When the choice was Idaho Falls, my paternal grandfather, who was born in 1888, loved to go out to the old airport that had been built there in the 1930s by the WPA and watch Western Air Express prop planes such as the DC-3 take off and land on routes from Montana to California.

A decade after it was retired, the Potomac Pacemaker was salvaged and then donated to the Durham-based NC Museum of Life & Science in 1978 by Durham-native Dillard Teer and his family.

The Teer family has been prominent in Durham now for 125 years, having built the Blue Ridge Parkway and many of the major roads in North Carolina.

They also owned and operated the Durham & Southern railway, built airfields around the world including RDU’s in 1939, developed Research Triangle Park here, and through several generations have served on the RDU Airport Authority.

The family carefully trucked the historic aircraft to the Durham museum where it was lovingly restored and mounted for display by former employees of Piedmont.

When I moved to Durham in June of 1989, I was intrigued by Piedmont Airlines which had been founded in North Carolina the year I was born, only to be gobbled up by US Airways three months after I arrived here.

To me, that made the Potomac Pacemaker mounted at the Museum of Life and Science a valuable visitor feature as well as a significant symbol of Durham’s history.

Of course, had it been retained instead of given away in 2004, it would be too large to be displayed inside what will eventually be a full-fledged Museum of Durham History, unless hung from a vaulted ceiling.

But the old DC-3 could have been mounted at the front entrance of the eventual local history museum as an icon, much as this Mercury Redstone Rocket does today for the Museum of Life and Science.

One only has to look at the front-page news about the recent reclamation of one of Durham’s 1949 fire trucks which will join two others, one from 1902 and another from 1935, in yet another mini-museum, to see how artifacts capture the public’s enthusiasm.

Maybe my friend, the former director, who parted ways with the Potomac Pacemaker is serving penance by being a driving force in retirement for a Museum of Durham History (smile.)

Instead, the Potomac Pacemaker is now in loving hands of volunteers again who are fully restoring it for display one day at the state Transportation Museum in Spencer, NC.

It was given away ten years ago as museums fell under the spell of interactive exhibits, especially for children.  But soon it became clear even to museums created during this span, that it is the genuine artifacts that garner the most attention and create a sense of awe.

It is both/and, never either/or.

By not wanting to be in the “artifact business,” I assume some who are laying the groundwork for the Museum of Durham History (now represented by a hub-avatar) probably fear that people like me will show up with their grandfather’s collection of old National Geographic magazines (smile.)

But museums don’t need to tie themselves down by vetting potential donations.  They could use trained volunteers or contract with entities that do that sort of thing.  We’ve all seen this vetting at work on TV shows such as Antique Roadshow, American Pickers or even Pawn Stars.

The primary importance of history museums, especially local history museums, is the telling of stories.  A recent essay posted by the Smithsonian explains why artifacts are so powerful, far more powerful than just photographs or videos:

  • Artifacts tell their own stories.
  • Artifacts connect people.
  • Artifacts mean many things.
  • Artifacts capture moments.
  • Artifacts reflect changes.

The authors note that (paragraphing inserted for ease of reading):

“Artifacts are the touchstones that bring memories and meanings to life. They make history real. Moreover, it is a reality that can and should be viewed from different perspectives.

When museums choose not to enshrine and isolate an artifact but instead open it up to new interpretations and different points of view, they provide opportunities to challenge and enhance our understanding of the past.”

Anything but static, “consider each artifact with its many stories as holding diverse meanings for different people, past and present. Think of them as bits of contested history.”

The authors of the essay, National Museum of American History curator Kathleen Kendrick and Dr. Steven Lubar at Brown University, have written several books both together and separately about the legacies of artifacts and what is worth saving.

Because Durham officials have delayed what has for eight decades (half of Durham’s existence) been a top cultural priority among Durham residents as measured most recently during a cultural master planning process, thousands of invaluable artifacts have been dispersed around the world.

Many are in landfills, but many were hopefully plucked by collectors from garage and estate sales when distant decedents of Durham owners, ignorant of their significance, put them on sale or discarded them after cleaning out attics.

This means the Museum of Durham History, when finally fully enabled, will need to put out calls to collectors and pickers for invaluable but forgotten Durham heirlooms and hope they can at least be loaned to the museum.

One only has to watch and observe visitors to the three state historic sites in Durham (mini-museums) to see how significant artifacts are.  Each site has hidden away details on how to relocate hundreds more than they have room to put on display.

With each passing day, Durham loses more and more of its history.  For those still puzzled about why we should care, here are just a few reasons a Museum of Durham History, stocked with both artifacts and the latest technology, is crucial:

  • Story Telling. It will give children, students, newcomers and relocating executives a place to get in touch with Durham’s story. People who grasp that stories are more inclined to be engaged as activists, volunteers and philanthropy.
  • Synergy. It will augment Durham’s historic sites by providing exhibition space to stir interest in those locations, making them more sustainable. It will complement rather than undermine other cultural facilities and programming.
  • Preservation. It will be a vigilant testimony to what makes the community distinct and unique and insulate its character and personality from the pressures of development and “generica.”
  • Future Generations. As a repository of innovations and artifacts, it will inspire future generations to build on the temporal qualities that make Durham, well, Durham…creative, entrepreneurial, caring, innovative, accepting, etc.

My dad was notoriously unsentimental about artifacts but through the last few decades of his life he learned to ask me first before disposing of old equipment and memorabilia.

Unfortunately, this was too late to salvage tack from the ranch or my great-grandfather’s branding irons.

Never underestimate the power of artifacts.

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