While it’s usually considered a good thing to “go down in history,” recently the Orange County Historical Museum has just been down. Closed late last year because of water damage, and then having to keep the doors locked because of COVID, the museum finally has good news as it has announced it will reopen Sept. 25, with a new exhibit called Yesah, Journeys of the Occaneechi.
Sherry Appel, who is chair of the museum’s Board of Directors, said the road has been tough, but not wasted.
“It’s been very frustrating for us,” Appel said. “The roof leaked back in November. The building is owned by the town, so the town had people come in and they did a repair. We found out two weeks later that the repair wasn’t enough, so there were lots more changes and lots more problems were created. We had to close the museum. We were just about finished with the repairs in mid-February and were planning on a reopening in mid-March, and then COVID hit. We’ve been using the time well. We’re so excited we’re actually going to be able to have people come in to the museum and see what we’re doing. We have two really great new staffers who have been doing some amazing things both with the collection and the upcoming exhibit. Kind of reorganizing. So it’s been closed, but we’ve been very active behind the scenes.”
As is the case with nearly everything these days, COVID has changed how people will be able to experience the museum. Operating hours will be limited and reservations will need to be made.
“At least initially, I think we’re going to take it step by step,” Appel said. “We’re going to do the Friday through Sunday hours. It’s free, of course, but we’re going to try to make it possible for people to contact us and reserve a time so that we can have one group in at a time. It is a small museum, so it’s not like we can have people going in large groups. People would have an hour to come in and look at the new exhibit and the permanent, which we are completely refreshing and updating. We will have masks, but we want to make sure everyone coming in has a mask and, obviously, social distancing. We’re going to take it weekend by weekend, initially. See how things go. See what times work best for people, and then expand as we would like to. We’re taking this very cautiously because we want to make sure we don’t have a situation like we had in other parts of North Carolina when things opened.”
The museum has two main rooms on the exhibit floor. There is space on the second floor for some of the larger objects on display, but the museum is not certain if that area will be part of the reopening.
“Hillsborough, as you know, has been around for a long time,” Appel said. We have so much history. Especially with the new Native American exhibit, we not only want to showcase what happened in the past, but also that this is a thriving tribal community now. John Blackfeather and Beverly Payne, who is on the tribal council, is being very helpful. Her wedding dress is going to be in the exhibit. It’s really amazing to see it. It’s very lovely and heavy.”
Staff has also used the closure time to conduct an inventory of the museum’s collection to help better showcase some of the lesser-known artifacts and exhibits.
Appel said museum board members created a strategic plan in January, where one of the primary goals was to increase the effort to have the museum represent all of Orange County.
“We have plans to do these listening sessions where we’re trying to reach out to groups that are perhaps more rural,” Appel said. “We have Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Efland, Cedar Grove. We have a lot of areas in Orange County and we want to make sure the museum represents them, their interests and their history, as well. So, we’re going to do Zoom listening sessions.”
She said the museum is still looking for people who would be interested in shaping the museum. It is also planning to expand the Board of Directors to ensure it has a representation from the whole community of Hillsborough and Orange County.
In addition to its reopening, the Orange County Historical Museum is announcing its new website, www.orangehistorync.org, enhanced Facebook page, and introducing its two new staff members. Tanya Day is the museum’s site manager, and is responsible for day-to-day operations and volunteers. Courtney Smith is the exhibits and programs coordinator. She is developing the new Fall exhibit and is assessing the collection for additions to the permanent exhibit.
To experience the exhibition, find information on how to sign up for the online events, volunteer, or explore a little more of Orange County’s history, visit our website at www.orangehistorync.org, or find us on Facebook @orangehistory.
The museum is at 201 N. Churton St., in Hillsborough.