Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center is marking a year in its temporary home at Hunter Library, with faculty, staff, students and visitors taking greater advantage of the location and opportunities it has provided.
The museum, well known as a showcase for Southern Appalachian culture, programs and displays, moved in fall 2015 from H.F. Robinson Administration Building to Hunter Library. As they did in the previous location, staff members assist regional research and educational needs, work with artifacts, exhibitions and demonstrations, and offer classes in traditional mountain skills such as crafts and music.
Attendance figures show an overall increase since the move, attributed mostly through visits by K-12 school groups and public programs. Although walk-in attendance by the general public — “casual drop-in visits” — dropped, public program attendance and community group visits rose.
Visitation through public programs, K-12 groups and community groups increased from 3,440 visitors in fiscal year 2015 to 5,400 in fiscal year 2016, a jump of 57 percent, said Pam Meister, curator and interim director. “It’s easier for school buses to pull up and unload, it’s easier for anyone on campus to stroll in, and we are finding more faculty members coming in and asking for custom programs,” she said.
“Also, our total reach expanded dramatically because of the Mountain Heritage Center traveling exhibit program. We added some new venues, but what really upped our numbers was the Interstate 26 welcome center’s aggressive new marketing activities, which resulted in great visitation.”
The Mountain Heritage Center recorded 420,033 contacts in the offsite exhibit visitation category, up 76 percent from 239,039 in 2015. This was attributed to an intentional effort to have more exhibits on view for longer periods of time in local community venues, particularly at the Jackson County Public Library.
The temporary relocation to the library, announced in 2015 as part of a series of renovations in the Robinson Building, was one of the first steps in a chain of events that is expected to lead to a new permanent home for the center, perhaps as part of a WCU Visitors Center. The museum can trace its beginnings to the late 1920s when a small collection of documents and artifacts was begun. The name — and a space in McKee — was established in 1975, then moved to the ground floor of the Robinson Building in 1979.
Peter Koch, Mountain Heritage Center educator, said university participation, especially involvement with history classes and interaction with students working on course studies and class projects, has risen. “We integrate well with the academic mission,” he said. “The center is a readily available resource.” The museum also involves students with its exhibits, collections and project work. “We are getting students from a lot of different majors, with a lot of different interests and skill sets,” he said.
In 2010, typically four or five WCU students worked with the Mountain Heritage Center. Today, a dozen or more students, including graduate assistants, federal work study participants, interns and volunteers is the norm.
Since moving to Hunter Library, the center has been selected to participate in the American Alliance of Museums’ new accreditation academy for small institutions and has won the North Carolina Folklore Society’s “Community Traditions Award” for community engagement and commitment to research, education and cultural celebration. Also, Koch was honored with the 2015 Professional Service Award from the North Carolina Museums Council.
“We are looking forward to our ‘forever home,’ but until then, this location is allowing us to continue the important regional and cultural curation, exhibits, public programs and more that happen here,” Meister said. “We have good neighbors with the library staff, who are genuinely interested in what we do — so supportive and welcoming. And it has been so much fun being down the hall from Special Collections. We work so closely with them anyway; it has been great.”
Mountain Heritage Center visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, with extended hours until 7 p.m. on Thursdays. For more information, call 828-227-7129 or go to mhc.wcu.edu.