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Q and A with Pamela Meister

by Mark Peres

April 5,2006

What’s the point of a history museum in a city so focused on the future?

A future-focused town like Charlotte needs a museum of history even more than places like Savannah, Charleston, or Richmond that celebrate their history and have many more tangible pieces of the past than we do in Charlotte. I believe that we need to examine the past in order to understand the present, and that planning for the future should be informed by a solid understanding of what has gone before. It seems to me that Charlotte has a short time horizon—conversations frequently seem to focus on “right now” and “the next big thing” and that there is little acknowledgement of past history or long-term consequences of our present actions.

Why is Charlotte so caught up in change and validation?

Charlotte is a city that seems to be hard-wired for change. Starting out as an intersection of Native American trade routes, the city willed itself into existence, with no natural feature such as a navigable river or mountain pass to make it a logical spot to build a city. In many ways, Charlotte served as a blank slate for generations of people to write their own ambitions and dreams on it, and has reinvented itself again and again. Charlotte is a city that embraces newcomers, but it is also a city that doesn’t seem to have a strong, widely held vision of its future, and thus obsessively compares itself to other places and looks outward rather than inward for validation.

What lessons from our past would Charlotte benefit from remembering?

Charlotte’s early European settlers skewed toward independent individualism and self-reliance. The Scots-Irish and Moravians were natural revolutionaries, and they built community and questioned authority. In some ways, Charlotte has become a city that defers to authority and I believe that we would benefit from a healthy dose of that Scots-Irish independence. In more recent history, Charlotte has a record of urban redevelopment that has displaced communities and destroyed irreplaceable historic structures. We need to remember those lessons as the city continues to grow and develop, and be careful about deconstructing neighborhoods.

Is Charlotte on an upward or downward spiral?

Upward! I’m an otimist. We’re in an amazing period of growth, but we must remember that in the midst of great wealth and prosperity there is still poverty, need, and racial distrust. With the rapid expansion of Charlotte’s physical boundaries, we run the risk of becoming polarized. However, I’m continually impressed with Charlotte’s “can-do” spirit and the amazing amount of time and energy that Charlotteans devote to civic endeavors. Projects such as Crossroads Charlotte are bringing together a broad cross-section of active and engaged citizens who are thoughtfully working to create a bright future for our city.

How does the Charlotte Museum of History differ from the Levine Museum of the New South?

I believe that all history museums have the basic mission of using the past to understand the present and shape the future. This is true for The Charlotte Museum of History and the Levine, but we have very different facilities and styles. The Levine focuses on the New South from 1865 to the future, their Center City facility is very urban, and they are known for their adult programs that build community through dialogue. The Charlotte Museum of History interprets Charlotte from its earliest days through today. We are the only history museum in Charlotte that includes a modern museum building and a historic site—the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Homesite, the oldest surviving structure in Mecklenburg County. Our eight-acre site is uniquely suited for living history programs—you can literally walk out of the Museum’s back door and be transported 200 years into the past. Because of this, we present a great deal of programming for families, children, and outreach toward schools.

What are you working hard on these days?

We’re working hard on raising our profile in the community. We want people to know the Museum as a resource on Charlotte history, as a center for community activity, and as an educator and connector providing engaging, immersive experiences for adults, children, and families. We want the community to use our facilities to meet its needs, and we’re tracking who is coming to the Museum. As the keeper and interpreter of three centuries of Charlotte history, we’re always working on telling the stories of Charlotte from multiple viewpoints, and we’re always on the lookout for objects and documents that will help us tell those stories.

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