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Turning what was old new again

This article originally printed on Dec. 29, 2019, detailing the life and creation of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. With the museum opening its newly remodled entrance and reimagined south gallery, museum officials thought it would be a perfect time to to rerun the column. This past Friday the new gallery and giftshop opened to the public with renewed excitement.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is four floors of artifacts and information telling the stories of the people who settled this area and built these communities. Begun by private citizens, artifact collection began years before the museum would open, before anyone knew where the museum would actually be.

Once the building, an old hardware store, was acquired, galleries opened one at a time over several years, as resources allowed exhibits to be completed. Today we have one of the most impressive local museums I’ve ever seen.

I don’t know if the folks who live in the area today understand how unusual it is for a county of this population and location off the beaten path to have a museum of this size and quality.

I’m sure that will strike some as self-serving but, remember, I’m not from here. I had nothing to do with building the museum or gathering her collection though I count myself fortunate to work here these last few years.

This was obviously a labor of love for a great many people who, for more than a quarter century, worked to create and maintain a history museum on Mount Airy’s Main Street.

The museum began as an idea of the Mount Airy Restoration Foundation, known today for their beautiful property, the Moore House. The foundation was established in 1982 with the express goal to “promote, restore, preserve, and revitalize the Greater Mount Airy area” by the preservation of significant structures and encourage their development into modern uses.

In 1988 they formed a museum committee to explore the idea of a history museum in Mount Airy. They set their sights high — Smithsonian high.

“Our emphasis at the museum is going to be on programs and primarily tied to local history in the schools,” chairman Barbara Summerlin was quoted in the Mount Airy News in January 1990. “This will help a lot of young people realize that what they have and where they live …(is the result of) a lot of hard work and commitment to a community.”

They also wanted historic items from Surry County to stay in Surry County. In the few years prior, a locally owned antique doll collection had been sent to Old Salem Museum and Gardens and a piano belonging to the Brower family of Mount Airy went to Greensboro History Museum.

The committee hired an architectural firm in Winston-Salem specializing in historic buildings to conduct a feasibility study. Several properties were considered, including some historic homes, but the 30,000-square foot empty W.E. Merritt Hardware building was chosen. It had room enough for active demonstrations and Smithsonian-style exhibits.

“We’re fortunate in this community to have a really well-executed museum that is more than just our collective ‘attic.’ It’s really a testament to the enduring vision and hard work the founders put into creating a quality experience 25 years ago,” Matt Edwards, the museum’s executive director said recently as he guides the institution into the first major renovation in many years.

The committee organized as a separate non-profit in 1992 and established the museum with primarily private money. It continues in that status unlike many other museums in the state that are operated by state or local governments.

Our mission statement is deceptively simple. “The purpose of the Mount Airy Museum of regional History is to collect, preserve and interpret the natural, historical, and artistic heritage of the region.” Adopted by the board of directors in October 1994, it leaves a vastly open-ended goal but one our volunteers and staff continue to pursue.

“As we start this project, we’re building on those solid foundations,” Edwards said. “We can incorporate new stories, technologies and new amenities that were not readily available when the museum first opened. This project will allow the museum to continue serving this community and visitors to it long into the future as one of the premier community museum’s in the state.”

If you’d like to be involved in the next stage of the museum’s life through docent work, volunteer participation, financial support, or photo or artifact donation, please contact the museum at (336) 786-4478.

By Kate Rauhauser-Smith is a local freelance writer, researcher, and genealogist. At the time she wrote this column in 2019, she was the visitor services manager for the museum.



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