Yes, Chapel Hill, we do have a history museum
What happened to our town’s history museum?
People are asking that question again as Chapel Hill’s Town Council considers options for selling the former library building that housed the Chapel Hill Museum. Many residents remember sadly its closing on July 11, 2010.
Some day, perhaps, we will understand better how and why the town lost its museum four years ago.
In the meantime, remember another history museum in our town with a group of permanent exhibits that draws visitors from all over the world.
This museum, known as the North Carolina Collection Gallery, occupies a suite of rooms on the main floor of the Wilson Library on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. It is the classic white building between South Building and the Bell Tower.
Linda Jacobson, keeper of the gallery, gave me a tour recently. We looked at permanent exhibits about Sir Walter Raleigh and the Lost Colony, beautiful gold coins from the Bechtler Mint and the U.S. Mint in Charlotte in the days before the California Gold Rush, when North Carolina was known as the Gold State, displays of original prints by Audubon and other important early artists of natural plants and wildlife.
The most popular permanent exhibit, she told me, is “Chang and Eng.” It tells the history of the Bunkers, the original Siamese Twins, who moved to Surry County when they retired from show business, married, had large families, and became the ancestors of many of today’s North Carolinians.
While only a few hundred objects can be displayed at any one time, the gallery has at least 22,000 different items in its collection. So there is a deep well that gives Jacobson the ability to curate several new and important exhibits every year.
Its current exhibit, “The Art of North Carolina Money: The Stories Behind the Symbols,” features more than 80 examples of money, tokens, and medals.
In the time before the Civil War, various banks throughout the country issued paper money. To counter the efforts of counterfeiters, the bills typically featured various scenes. The exhibit celebrates the wide variety of artworks that were featured on the money.
One banknote issued by a Boston bank features a Santa Claus figure. Dated in 1857, the note was issued years before Thomas Nast began drawing his classic portraits of the jolly old elf. Another note, from Philadelphia in 1837, Jacobson calls the “Elvis note” because the main figure looks a lot like Elvis Presley.
Civil War students will find a variety of North Carolina paper money items, including one showing the young Civil War governor, Zebulon B. Vance.
The exhibit continues until the end of September. Summertime, when the campus is less crowded, is a good time to visit.
The gallery is open Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. It is closed on state holidays. (Today, it is closed as part of the July 4 holiday weekend.)
D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and online at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Viewers with access to UNC-TV’s digital channel UNC-MX can preview the program on the preceding Friday at 9 p.m. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.