We spent a pleasant afternoon at the Greensboro Historical Museum, which is a lot more than just the holder of that fantastic Dolley Madison collection. I’ve been to a lot of museums, big and small, and I’ve found that the measure of a good one is how it tells the story it sets out to tell. In this case, it is easy; the story is the history of the City of Greensboro and the surrounding area. And this little museum has a very good exhibition that tells that story with artifacts and interactive displays.
I always tend to focus in on the parts that tell women’s history and the history of textiles and clothing. Above are pictured artifacts from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. Founded as a normal school in 1891, WC is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. At one time it was the largest college for women in the country. Men were admitted starting in 1963. My friend Carole who attended Women’s College before the name change still refers to UNC-G by the old name.
North Carolina is historically known for textiles, and Greensboro in particular is known for the production of denim. There were interesting displays showing the large producers of the area – Blue Bell, the maker of Wrangler jeans, and Cone Mills, maker of denim fabric.
Considering the importance of textiles to the growth of Greensboro, I’d have expected a bit more about the industry. But though the exhibit was small, there were lots of interesting things to see, and I learned a bit more about Cone.
There was a display on mill towns which included some photos and quotes about how children and education were valued. Some mills provided kindergartens for the workers’ children.
On one floor the museum has set up a replica of some of the old town that has historical significance. Writer O. Henry was a native of Greensboro, and he worked at a drugstore that was owned by an uncle. He became a licensed pharmacist, a skill that helped him years later when he was imprisoned for embezzlement. He was able to work in the prison hospital, away from the general prison population.
I can imagine that school groups really like this little town vignette, as it is a bit like going back in time. There is also a hotel and a school with all sorts of things to explore.
There were a few exhibits that were a bit puzzling. There was a room full of pottery from the Jugtown potters, which is not located in nor associated with Greensboro. They also have a huge collection of Civil War guns that was exhibited in a very large area that prominently displayed the names and portraits of the collectors. Even my husband, who has a great interest in old firearms, admitted that it was gun overload.
I don’t know the circumstances of these items in the museum’s holdings, but one thing that many museums have to grapple with is the way their collections fit in with their mission statement. I know that it must be difficult to say no to a donor, especially one who is also willing to donate money, but in this day and time when museums have moved beyond being mere cabinets of curiosities, it is important to stick to the purpose of the institution. Personally, I’d have liked to see more of the Dolley Madison collection and less of the firearms.
As much as I love the great museums I’ve visited, I can’t say enough about the value of a museum like this one. All places are unique, with interesting people and stories that need to be heard. I urge you to seek out the small museums in your area and support them.