Levine Museum of the New South

Cultural Heritage museums in the South face the task of interpreting and telling a painful history, as well as working to effect change: how do you tell those histories in an empathetic, engaging, and discussion-provoking manner? As well as telling the stories of the region today, fraught with urban renewal, gentrification, systemic racism, and an ever-growing population? I recently signed up to start volunteering at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina. During my first introduction to a museum that I have not visited since elementary school, I realized that I do not know my hometown history, as opposed to my knowledge of European museums and history. While walking through the museum, I gained an appreciation for the cultural heritage and industrialization of the Charlotte region.

The Levine Museum of the New South began in 1991, beginning first with interactive kiosks and exhibits around Charlotte. The task of the museum was to interpret Charlotte’s history from right after the Civil War in 1865 and the sharecropping estates that made up the region to the current, sprawling, and expanding city it is today. The mission of the museum is to inspire empathy and ignite a dialogue about the south.

The permanent exhibition spaces are set up chronologically: from the sharecropper estates to the factories and interpreting the everyday life of a Charlottean. The temporary exhibitions on display discuss the history of Charlotte, both past and present that is relevant to current museum discussions. There are three temporary exhibitions on display. Brooklyn, which explores the history of one of Charlotte’s once most prominent black communities. It creates a dialogue of gentrification in the name of urban renewal, and the consequences of that renewal: the loss of community and important history, and explains how politics has the power to further segregate the city and deepen the economical divide. Another tells the history of desegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools through the bussing system, which started in the 80s when students from different school districts were sent to predominately white schools. The last tells the painful story of two-recorded lynchings that occurred in Mecklenburg County. This exhibit describes the event and what the community has done to memorialize it and make it part of our national history.

Brooklyn exhibit
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lady Latimore Photography
Brooklyn exhibit
PHOTOGRAPH BY Lady Latimore Photography

This museum is important to the city of Charlotte and the surrounding area for its uniqueness in telling the history of the south immediately after the Civil War. It does not attempt to invoke a triumphant voice, but to engage in discussion. The exhibits on display tie in the city’s past with what is happening in our neighborhoods now. As far as I am aware, we do not have a museum in Charlotte that makes such an effort to discuss our history and our neighborhoods and how we have changed over time as a city and community.

History of the South
PHOTOGRAPH BY Selena McGonnell

One aspect of the museum does cause me to pause-why doesn’t the museum cover the Civil War? My best guess is that it must have been a difficult decision to leave that out-but I think that it might not have been part of the mission of the museum: To connect the past to the future to realize the promises of a New South. The museum illustrates the changes that the South went through after the Civil War.

The museum offers a regular series of programs for all ages, as well as hosting special programs to talk about the community, our history, and discuss books that relate to the museum. Now that the museums in Charlotte are slowly opening back up, I look forward to continuing my journey with the Levine Museum of the New South to learn more about my hometown’s history.

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Selena McGonnell

Selena holds an MSc in Museum Studies with Merit from the University of Glasgow, with a focus on collecting and display. She also holds a BS in History with a Concentration in Public and Applied History. She has a passion for museums and heritage with a keen interest in conducting research into how we can offer audiences engaging and meaningful experiences surrounding collections of colonial context, and how we can contribute to new thinking and practice related to the transparent presentation of those histories.