The offices and exhibits of the Mountain Heritage Center are expected to temporarily relocate to Hunter Library later this year as part of a long-term plan in which the museum will move into and become a focal point of a campus welcome center to be constructed.
Established in 1975 and located in the H.F. Robinson Administration Building since 1979, the MHC serves as a regional resource for education and research, and develops exhibits, publications, educational programs and demonstrations to connect people with Appalachian history and culture.
Although final decisions about relocation have not been made, specific spaces in the library where MHC exhibits and offices could move to are being explored and the center’s staff is preparing to move – potentially as early as late spring.
The relocation is one of the first steps in a chain of events that will facilitate the construction of a new welcome center and a parking garage on or near the site of the Cordelia Camp Building as envisioned in the campus master plan, which was approved by the WCU Board of Trustees in 2013. Moving the MHC will make it possible for the Office of Admission, currently located in the Camp Building, to shift into the space the MHC occupies in the administration building.
“While the facilities here have been terrific and so many people have great memories of the programs that we have held here over the years, we also are excited about the possibility of permanently moving to a space that could further enhance our accessibility and interaction with community members on- and off-campus,” said Pam Meister, MHC interim director and curator. “The people of this community have entrusted us with preserving their family’s artifacts and treasures in order to share and celebrate the history of these mountains, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
Meister also said she expects there to be benefits and new opportunities from being temporarily located in the library. Becky Kornegay, acting dean of library services, concurred. The temporary location should enable the two units to strengthen their partnerships and collaborative work related to documenting the history of the region, said Kornegay.
Meister also said the move could spark greater student awareness of the center and an increase in student participation in the center’s programming.
“If someone at the library conducting research or studying needs a break and takes a few minutes to see an exhibit or learn about an upcoming program, that is one more person we may be able to involve in the life of the museum,” said Meister.
The MHC staff worked intentionally to increase student involvement at the center in recent years, said Scott Philyaw, an associate professor of history who served as director from April 2006 until the start of the 2014-15 academic year.
“Our university-wide Quality Enhancement Plan (now the intentional learning plan) called for more engaged, experiential learning opportunities for students, and the staff at the center worked together to figure out how we could create more opportunities and more meaningful experiences for students,” said Philyaw.
During his eight-and-a-half-years at the helm, the MHC increased the number of paid and unpaid student workers and interns from three to about a dozen each year, said Philyaw. Students assisted with everything from researching, making public presentations, performing, designing and installing exhibits to tasks such as budgeting, marketing, construction and design.
The center also focused on growth in other areas that strengthened its partnerships and presence in the community, which was another aspect of the 2007 QEP. Students and staff worked together to develop a growing number of traveling exhibits, such as an installation about the state dog, the Plott hound, that traveled across North Carolina and spent a year on display at the N.C. Museum of History. They also worked directly to prepare a growing number of exhibits for off-campus venues, including regular installations at the N.C. Welcome Center on Interstate 26.
“These exhibits showcase WCU and the kind of work WCU and the Mountain Heritage Center is doing to people who have never been to our campus,” said Philyaw.
In addition, the MHC expanded its outreach when it became home to the Digital Heritage project through which students created essays, interviews and other multimedia “Digital Heritage Moments.” Topics ranged from cornhusk crafts to the Trail of Tears, and their work is featured online at digitalheritage.org. Through the project, WCU students and faculty have created more than 200 radio spots heard by approximately 250,000 people each week on five regional radio stations, said Philyaw. The Laurel of Asheville features a different Heritage Moment in each monthly issue.
After funding and a part-time position for the Digital Heritage Project were eliminated in 2009, Philyaw stepped forward to do what he could to sustain it without dedicated funds.
“This was a public outreach project that involved students, and I did not want to see it disappear, so together with faculty volunteers and many student workers we were able to keep it afloat,” he said.
As Philyaw began to consider stepping down from the MHC director position, a role he was fulfilling in addition to serving on the faculty, he explored how he could dedicate more time to the Digital Heritage Project. To that end, the project has been shifted to the Coulter Faculty Commons, where Philyaw is serving as a faculty associate for digital humanities while also teaching history courses. As a CFC faculty associate, he is available to assist faculty members interested in finding opportunities where the university’s mission of providing quality education for students and outreach intersect.
Carol Burton, associate provost for undergraduate studies, said the MHC significantly expanded its outreach to the university and external communities during Philyaw’s tenure as director. She said she also was grateful for the contributions he made as chair of the Mountain Heritage Day Committee, helping secure external funding for the festival and working with former festival chairman Doug Davis and his wife, Angela Davis, to create an endowment fund. Philyaw was succeeded by Meister, an award-winning curator who has been at the center for the past four years and became interim director in August.
“The Mountain Heritage Center is an increasingly vibrant museum, the only one of its kind west of Asheville, and we are excited about its future at WCU,” said Burton. “The work accomplished by the center reflects our focus on combining community engagement with student learning and the center will continue to grow as it embarks on a mutually beneficial relationship with Hunter Library.”