A historian who rummaged through Appalachian Mountain artifacts and archives as an undergraduate student at Western Carolina University has been tapped to lead the museum where he once toiled as an intern.
Scott Philyaw, WCU associate professor of history, is the new director of the Mountain Heritage Center, the university’s regional museum that studies, documents and interprets the culture and history of Southern Appalachia. The appointment is effective April 3.
“We have searched far and wide for the right person to move our Mountain Heritage Center forward, and we are delighted that someone who grew up in these very mountains is coming on board to ensure that the fine work of this important cultural resource continues,” Clifton Metcalf, vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs, said in announcing the appointment. “Dr. Philyaw is no stranger to the Mountain Heritage Center and, in fact, played a key role in developing the center’s inaugural exhibit when he was an undergraduate student at WCU.”
Philyaw, who earned his bachelor’s degree in history from WCU in 1983, traveled to Northern Ireland during his senior year to conduct research and arrange for loans of artifacts for the center’s inaugural exhibition on the migration of the Scotch-Irish people. That display, which chronicles the arrival of settlers from Scotland and Ireland in the mountains of Western North Carolina, has evolved to become the museum’s permanent exhibit.
For Philyaw, who was born in Lenoir and grew up in Morganton, the lure of the history of the mountains goes further back than his undergraduate days. “My interest in the history of this region began when I used to beg my grandmother for stories about her youth in northern Jackson County,” he said. “She told me stories of her father, John Hipps, who worked in the timber business, of her Cherokee neighbors and of Saturday shopping trips to Sylva.”
After graduating from WCU, Philyaw went on to earn his master’s degree in history from the College of William and Mary and his doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. While at William and Mary, he worked at Colonial Williamsburg and at an archaeological site at Yorktown Battlefield. At UNC, he worked with the Southern Historical Collection.
A member of WCU’s history faculty since 1996, Philyaw has assisted the Mountain Heritage Center with several exhibits. He has served as scholar-in-residence at Old Salem’s Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and as an exhibit consultant with The Orchard at Altapass in McDowell County. Working with WCU students, he co-authored two pamphlets for the Blue Ridge Parkway, including “The Natural Diversity of Linville Falls,” which won the 2002 Excellence in Interpretation Award for Trail Guides from the National Park Service Cooperating Association.
Philyaw participates in numerous library programs across the region, including those in Sylva, Cashiers, Franklin, Highlands, Brevard and Andrews, and has worked with public school teachers to bring programs about the history of the Southern Appalachians into classrooms.
Although he’ll be directing a museum that focuses on traditions of the past, Philyaw has plans to take its activities into the future. “ The Mountain Heritage Center already has a successful record, and one of my goals for the center is to build on its successful outreach efforts by doing more community programming and educational programs for the public schools, from kindergarten through the 12th grade,” he said. “I also wish to continue the outreach work the center has done with other regional museums and historic societies.”