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Q and A with Emily Zimmern

by Jennifer Garner

June 5,2006

Why do we need a museum of the New South? Aren’t museums about the past?

Charlotte has a wonderful collection of sites and facilities that preserve and chronicle our southern heritage. Prior to the Levine Museum of the New South, we didn’t have an organization that was interpreting our recent history for the public. Charlotte really is a product of the New South; at the time of the Civil War Charlotte was just an upstart village of a few thousand people. Our growth was really post 1865 and continues today. There is an incredible amount of scholarship being done on the New South at area colleges and the Levine Museum allowed us the venue and programs to bring this history to the citizens of the Charlotte area and the thousands of visitors to this area every year. Our permanent exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” is one of the most comprehensive exhibits in the nation on the history of the New South and was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The “Courage” exhibit on the school desegregation lawsuit received a lot of attention in Charlotte, what kind of long term effects did that create?

The “Courage” exhibit was a phenomenal success. We used the exhibit to create civic dialogue about a difficult subject. One program brought management teams through the exhibit, followed by a guided dialogue through our partnership with the Community Building Initiative. We created a safe environment for people to discuss these issues and brought over 1,700 people through that program. The “Courage” exhibit won several national awards, including the National Museum Service Award, which was presented by the First Lady at the White House to the Levine Museum. We would like to build on this kind of community dialogue with future exhibits.

How do you make Charlotte’s history relevant to those citizens whose history is not that of the south?

We are partnering with Mecklenburg Ministries to create another community dialogue program around our upcoming exhibit on “The Families of Abraham” and the history of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths in Charlotte. We are also focusing on the newest citizens of the New South, those who have moved here from other countries and bring their rich and diverse heritages with them. We want to use history’s lessons to build community between the diverse groups that make up the New South today. We are developing exhibits around the Cambodian and Latino communities in Charlotte and are excited about these upcoming events. Already all CMS 8th graders come to the museum as one of their required field trips. We have several exhibits that are currently on the road and bringing southern history to new audiences. We received a grant from Bank of America to take part of the “Courage” exhibit to New York City, Washington D.C, and Atlanta. The grant will also help to house the exhibit in a permanent location in Charlotte. Our exhibit on the architect of Myers Park, John Nolen, has also traveled around Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Part of the “Courage” exhibit even went to Johannesburg, South Africa. Our programs on “New South for New Southerners” and “Global Dish” have provided fun, short evening programs designed to welcome newcomers to Charlotte and learn about our history, culture and cuisine. We are also going to conduct a “New South BBQ” bus tour as part of “Charlotte Shout” again this fall as a way to visit the many kinds of restaurants around town with an international and traditional twist to southern BBQ. We will also repeat our popular Gospel Shout program. We hope that these diverse programs will bring new visitors and guests to the museum.

How do you think your location uptown has been important to the mission of the museum?

I have to thank our earlier board members for the decision to locate in the Center City. When we moved into this building in 1994, it was surrounded by a sea of parking lots. Today, we are in the heart of the Center City and love all the synergies between ImaginOn, the Arena, the trolley, uptown residents and dining. We love that we were part of the transition and growth of the Center City to the vibrant, diverse and dynamic area that it is now. While we plan to stay put in this space, we are going to be reaching an even broader audience through our traveling exhibits and outreach programs.

What is your favorite thing about the New South?

The energy and dynamism generated by the intersection of the traditional southern culture and the many new comers to the South.

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