Durham History Hub opens to fanfare

Oct. 12, 2013 @ 09:00 PM

Through the long window panes of Durham’s new History Hub, visitors can view the city’s historic buildings and compare them to exhibit black-and-white photographs of the skyline’s past.

The Museum of Durham History opened its first physical space Saturday at 500 West Main Street. It paid homage to the rise and fall of big tobacco, the city’s hospitals and brick architecture. The museum’s content is more than 100 years in the making, when Dr. Bartlett Durham provided land for a railroad station in 1849 and the town got its name.

The idea for a Museum of Durham History was born in 2004 when Durham’s Cultural Master Plan pinpointed a history museum as a top community priority.

Lew Myers, chairman of the Museum of Durham History’s board of directors, said to the crowd Saturday, “This is a historic occasion. Seldom do people open a new history museum.”

He likened the museum’s journey as taking a village to raise a child. The museum took  volunteers, faith and more than $175,000 to transform a former bus transfer station into a cultural space.

“For those of you who saw it before, you will be amazed,” Myers said. “I don’t know if there’s a defibrillator here, because some people may have a heart attack.”

About 100 people stood underneath the pavilion as it drizzled outside, and others on the outskirts huddled under umbrellas.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, Brenda Howerton from the Durham County Board of Commissioners, and N.C. Sens. Mike Woodard and Floyd McKissick Jr. also were in attendance.

After ribbons were cut, people began to file into the hub.

Elainiel Baldwin gazed upon “Our Bull City,” a rotating exhibit that shows perspectives from the community. The current exhibit was created by a group of high school students, who pieced together “Then & Now” photographs.

Baldwin and her partner moved to Durham seven months ago, and they’re big history buffs. She was drawn to the black and white prints of men protesting Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company.

“I love any photographs that show how the streets used to look,” she said. “When we have grandkids and stuff, we can tell them we were here for the opening.”

Across the room, Girija Mahajan, 30, smiled as she watched children rummage through the dress-up clothes and don mustaches and old coats to look like historic Durham heroes.

Mahajan said she used to teach U.S. history in New York City, and she came to Durham to work at Duke University in its regional affairs office. She said she wanted to help the city make the history and educational programming connection.

She said she sometimes hears children say how history is boring, with all the dates and names. But she hopes to help change that.

“I just really appreciate how the History Hub isn’t looking to be just a traditional museum,” she said. “It’s much more interactive.”

The exhibits will constantly change, with help from the community. On Saturday, people gathered around photographs and information in the back of the hub that shared the story of Watts Hospital, Lincoln, the first hospital for African-American patients in Durham that was founded in 1901; and Duke Hospital and School of Medicine, which was the largest hospital in the city’s history when it opened with 400 beds in 1930.

A vintage microphone was placed in the middle of a wooden table, where people could record their personal stories about growing up in Durham. The stories would then be archived at the Durham County Library and may be used in future History Hub exhibits and perhaps a future podcast project.

“We’ve been watching as the hub’s been evolving,” said Lara Ryan, who was visiting during the grand opening with her young son, Nathaniel. “My husband and I have always enjoyed the history of Durham. We have a collection of historical postcards of Durham buildings.”

Enclosed in a glass case were pouches with old labels such as “Genuine Durham smoking tobacco.” Paragraphs shared the history of Durham tobacco, to include that Liggett & Myers was the last tobacco factory to operate in Durham when it closed in 1999.

Katie Spencer, the museum’s executive director, kept jumping to her feet as someone came through the door she recognized. Neighbors and historians would congratulate her and take a free little “HUB LUV” button.

This space used to be empty, dirty, Spencer said. But the donors took a leap of faith on a constantly evolving concept. Now, the museum is bathed in warm spotlights and smelled of new carpet and fresh coats of paint.

Spencer said she can exhale.

“We’ve just all been giddy,” she said.




Museum hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Location: 500 W. Main St., Durham

Free admission.