Friday, March 20, 2015

Looking Back To Detect the Future

One of the signature artifacts of Durham, North Carolina’s past that has been lost during the eight decades of neglect since a local history museum was first proposed is a calliope.

Beginning less than a decade after the Civil War ended here 150 years ago next month, this musical instrument sat atop the now repurposed Old Bull Building and simulated the sound of a bull at each factory shift change and other special occasions.

I grew up on a cattle ranch in the Rockies so when I first read about this famous calliope, I had no trouble imagining the sound it played (click here to hear a bull.)  It celebrated Bull Durham tobacco and the “Bull City” it was soon to make world famous.

It is important to remember that in 1870 as plans were being laid to erect the Old Bull Building, now a National Historic Landmark, Durham was already very different than the rest of North Carolina.

At the time, Governor W.W. Holden was standing up against gangs of Ku Klux Klan riders who were marauding through nearby counties committing public murders and whippings while intimidating officials from doing anything about it.

Several counties were declared to be in a state of insurrection and state militia were deployed.

These gangs of terrorists were targeting “blacks who did not know their place” and whites who advocated for the rights of blacks.  In fact, maybe the sound of a Bull blaring from Durham was meant to ward them off.

Seriously, this is when Durham residents began talking privately about formation of a separate county which got its unique shape when several pieces of land were lopped off during passage of the controversial 1881 bill in the legislature, enabling voter approval.

But Durham’s industrialists and merchants were divided on another issue, bonds to build graded schools.  Republicans were opposed, arguing that education by families and in private and parochial schools was enough.

Opponents sued to overturn voter approval so voters approved the bonds again while proponents started a “moonlight school” for factory workers.

Artifacts such as the now lost “bull calliope” will be crucial to a fully-functional Museum of Durham History, should officials ever make it the priority public opinion polls have shown for decades.

The compelling essay entitled “Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History,” notes that artifacts reflect and symbolize changes.  Had the old calliope survived, it would today serve as a clarion reminder that Durham is different, and proud of it.

There are people who dismiss the past by claiming they only want to think about the future.  This is the kind of thinking or lack of thinking that leads quickly to a surrender of sense of place in so many communities.

It is by understanding the patterns of the past that we see into the future.  It is why a class in historical analysis should be required as a prerequisite in business schools for one on strategic thinking and/or strategy making.

With each passing day, Durham loses more and more of its history in exchange for mainstream culture that can be found anywhere.

For those still puzzled about why we should care and in need of lists to check, below 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.

Maybe it is because I am something of an artifact myself, that this has now become so clear (smile.)

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