Professor criticizes museum

The director of a UNC Charlotte history program said she warned students against doing internships at the Museum of York County after encountering a "toxic" atmosphere that she feared would teach young people the wrong lessons about how museums are supposed to work.

Employees talked openly about mismanagement by their superiors, Dr. Karen Cox said. In a group meeting, she said, she spotted the museum director doodling on a notepad and appearing disengaged from the conversation.

She also said a slave re-enactment at a historic venue run by the museum reflected an inaccurate portrayal of slavery that she felt she had to correct after the performance.

The museum organization, Cox concluded, "lacks professional management, the environment is toxic, and I do not want my students learning the wrong lessons about museums and how they function."

Museum Director Van Shields disputed the allegations, saying Cox worked with employees who have since left the museum on poor terms.

Shields said he doesn't mind telling anyone that he doodles, but the reason is for just the opposite of what Cox suggests.

"I'm a visual thinker," he said. "I doodle all the time. I might someday publish a book of my best doodles in association with major decisions."

Cox was involved with the museum from 2004 to 2006, including a stint as a paid consultant for a proposed museum along the Catawba River.

The comments add to the turmoil surrounding the taxpayer-funded museum, which has come under criticism from some members of its 21-person commission and York County Council members over spending and delays on projects.

Amid the controversy, current employees on the 75-person staff have stood up publicly to say they enjoy their jobs and find the workplace positive and nurturing.

Cox said she interacted with Shields while consulting on plans for the riverfront museum.

As founding director of the Public History program at UNC Charlotte, Cox said, she works with local museums and places interns at many of them.

On a trip with students to Historic Brattonsville, Cox said, the group watched a re-enactment that portrayed slaves as loyal to their masters.

The portrayal of the slave experience at Brattonsville has drawn attention over the years, culminating in 2005 when a group of black volunteer interpreters left because of what they said were soft depictions of slavery.

Slaves were depicted as overly content, the interpreters said. Scenes included slaves drinking alcohol at holiday celebrations and slaves unwilling to leave their masters.

The program has evolved with help from a committee of scholars, descendants and community members.

Programmers made revisions to show more aspects of the slave experience, such as African families being split up when they arrived in America and enslaved Africans being disparaged by the whites they served.

Cox said she felt compelled to speak up because of concerns she shares with former museum employees. Much of the rancor has focused on personality conflicts, but ex-employees contend the problems don't end there.

The comments from Cox prompted a heated e-mail exchange with Gary Williams, a museum foundation member and co-owner of Williams & Fudge, a prominent local business.

Williams urged board members not to form opinions based on misleading allegations. He questioned whether Cox was acting in conjunction with former staff archaeologist Annette Snapp and former curator Sam Thomas. Thomas resigned in 2006 while Snapp was fired the following year for continued insubordination.

"Thanks for your view," Williams wrote in a response. "Are we to assume that this information has absolutely nothing to do with your many years of friendship with Sam and Annette?"

Cox said she was insulted by the question.

"I am a respected historian ... and can formulate my own opinions without being swayed by others," Cox replied. "Thus, your insinuation that I could be influenced in any way is both rude and disrespectful, not to mention uninformed."