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New director sees troubled Charlotte history museum as 'a phoenix rising'

Charlotte newcomer Kay Peninger concedes it might seem crazy to some that she’s excited about starting as executive director of the troubled Charlotte Museum of History this week.

For the past year, the museum has been in a public financial tailspin, suffering one drastic cutback after another.

It started with big staff layoffs and progressed last spring to closing altogether to the public for an undetermined number of months. In November came news the museum was giving nearly all its artifacts to other museums and historic sites.

Then two weeks ago, museum officials said they’ll be vacating their 32,000-square-foot headquarters in east Charlotte, because it’s no longer needed. The administrative staff will move to less expensive space leased at the Levine Museum of the New South.

So why is Peninger excited?

She has a list of reasons, starting with the museum is now debt-free (having paid off a couple hundred thousand dollars in the past year) and it has dramatically scaled back expenses. Its $1.1 million budget is now $250,000.

But best of all, she says, one of the city’s most valuable historic assets, the 240-year-old Hezekiah Alexander Homesite headquarters building, has been saved from being mothballed or worse.

It’s there, in the oldest residence in Mecklenburg County, that Peninger is plotting the museum’s turnaround.

“This museum is like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Peninger, who has 12 years’ experience working at historic sites in Virginia.

“When I applied for this job, I took a tour (of the Alexander homesite) and was blown away. It’s a rare example of the original colonial fabric left standing and it’s amazing.”

Peninger says her idea is to create a “museum without walls” by staging diverse and innovative events with other nonprofits around the region.

Tours of the homestead will be closely aligned with the curriculum of the county’s school system. She sees that as a way of making the site more relevant to the community while also boosting visitation.

“You know how hard it is for students to imagine life before the auto and the cellphone?” she asks. “Well, imagine what it’s like to have them imagine life in colonial times. This site makes that connection.”

Peninger accomplished that at her previous job with the historic St. John’s Church in Richmond, Va., site of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. It saw 40,000 visitors annually, half of them students from around the country.

She served as executive director of the Patrick Henry Committee, director of development of Preservation Virginia and producer of a television special broadcast on PBS called “Liberty or Death: St. John’s Church and the American Revolution.”

She and her husband, Marty, moved from Virginia late last year, when his job relocated to the Charlotte area. That’s how she learned of the museum job opening.

The museum’s financial issues are not unique, experts say. The economic downturn has played havoc with historic homesites, particularly those run by nonprofits like the Charlotte Museum of History.

They depend on ticket sales and endowments to survive, and Americans are traveling less due to gas prices and diminished discretionary money. Another factor: Cash-strapped schools are spending less on field trips.

Many sites across the country have laid off staff and cut back on the number of days they’re open.

He’s convinced she’ll succeed

Historic site consultant Charles Bryan of Virginia estimates there are about 10,000 house museums in the country, which he says might be too many, considering all the options Americans have for their leisure time.

Still, he’s convinced Peninger will succeed in Charlotte, having worked with her in Richmond.

“Her job was not easy at St. John’s Church. There are 36 some-odd museums in the Richmond metro area, and the competition was very keen,” he says. “She saw the church through some very rough times.”

Peninger will be paid a salary in the mid-$60,000 range.

Money remains the museum’s biggest challenge. The museum board expects her to diversify the funding base, which was heavily dependent on the Arts & Science Council. When the ASC’s annual campaign faltered a few years back, the museum saw about a $100,000 budget cut.

Currently, the museum is open only one day a month, and board members say they won’t add days until they have the extra cash to support it.

Peninger thinks that’s the right decision and called the board “courageous” for shedding everything that didn’t pertain to its core mission of telling Charlotte’s pre-1865 history.

Museum officials admit some of the cuts were unpopular, particularly a move to redistribute all but 200 of its 15,000 artifacts. It also gave its archives to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

Robert Bush with the Arts & Science Council believes the museum’s board, led by interim director Kathy Ridge, did “nothing short of a miracle” in saving the home from permanent closure.

He also believes Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal last week to close the James K. Polk site in Pineville should alarm the community.

“Without support, these historic sites don’t survive,” Bush said, “so we have to come to grips with this as a community.”

Ridge says the museum seriously considered closing its doors, and even talked with other historic organizations – including the Levine Museum and the May 20th Society – to see which might take over the role of telling Charlotte’s earliest history.

The answer: No one.

“It looked like we were going out of business so the board had to ask: Do we need a Charlotte Museum of History? Should it exist at all?” Ridge says.

“What we found is no one organization was telling the story of Charlotte in the 1700s: how it got started; what role it played in the country; what role it played in the Revolution; how it got commerce started in the Southeast.”

So, she says, the Charlotte Museum of History decided to fight its presumed demise.

And it won.

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