You all know that I love museums. I love the large, the small, the renowned, and the obscure. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the local museum, an institution one can find in almost any town, regardless of the size. After spending a summer volunteering at the Shelton House in Waynesville, NC, I have a strong respect for the challenges our small local museums face.
There’s not enough manpower, expertise, and most of all, money. There’s lots of enthusiasm, especially for one’s own interests. I’ll speak for myself. I have lots of interest in clothing and textiles, but little in dolls and woodcraft. That’s why I was so thrilled that the wonderful director of the Shelton House allowed me to concentrate on the things I love.
I still have a bit of work to do in the Shelton House collection, but I am now turning my attention to the museum that is just down the street from me – the Shook-Smathers House in Clyde, NC. This house is also the home of the Museum of Haywood County History. It’s a fascinating place, and is one of the oldest houses in this part of the Appalachians. I’ve been tagging along on tours to see how our local history is interpreted, and it’s been interesting. The photo is of a visitor to the museum who is also a descendent of the builder of the house, Jacob Shook. I was so inspired by her enthusiasm upon visiting the house her ancestor built.
Over the past several years I’ve visited quite a few local museums in North Carolina. Some have been amazing, but others have left me scratching my head. There are several big questions. What is it about history that interests people the most? What do people want to see in a historical museum? And most importantly, what is important about the history of a region?
A common thread seems to be war, especially World War II, and here in the South, the Civil War. The veterans of WWII are dying out, and it seems apparent that every Boomer wants his dad’s uniform and war “trophies” displayed in the local museum. I recently visited two local museums, and both were filled with random war souvenirs and military uniforms. I had to ask myself, “Is this what I wanted to learn about these small Appalachian communities?”
You know that the answer is no. I know that the contributions of the people of Appalachia to the winning of WWII are important. My father fought in the Pacific, my father-in-law fought in Italy, and my mother-in-law worked for the military at home. I know their stories, and they are important. Their stories need to be acknowledged and preserved. But our history is so much more.
The same museum that gave us two Nazi flags and the Japanese rising sun, also had this circa 1800 coat of homespun fabric. It came with a through provenance, including who made it, for whom it was made, and how it was passed down through the family. It says so much about how fashion was important, even in a backwoods area, where women were still spinning and weaving and sewing in order that their families might be properly attired. I’m hoping it is noticed among the Confederate artifacts and the war souvenirs.
I want to give some context to the Japanese flag. This appears to be a Yosegaki Hinomaru, or a good luck flag, which was signed by the family and friends of a Japanese soldier going off to fight in WWII. These flags were often taken by Allied troops from fallen or imprisoned Japanese soldiers. In the case of this flag, it seems to also inscribed to an American Sargent, perhaps after being taken after a battle. At any rate, there’s no way for the visitor to the museum to know, as there is no interpretation of the object. In addition, there is a group, the Obon Society, which works to repatriate these flags to the families of the soldiers in Japan. How much more meaningful this flag would be to the descendants of a fallen soldier than it is as a random war souvenir.