Levine Museum to unveil a new look back to the future

When it debuted a decade ago, "Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers" was a chronicle of triumphant growth and civic prosperity.

Now, the signature exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South is getting an update - and an attitude adjustment and expansion.

"In 2001, Charlotte's present was an exclamation point," says the Levine's historian, Tom Hanchett. "Now, 10 years later, it is more of a question mark."

Following the financial industry's collapse and a deep recession throughout the region, Charlotte's go-go growth has been replaced with a cautious sense of unease, Hanchett says. After touring the retooled exhibit, which focuses largely on the era since 1970, visitors to the exhibit are asked to ponder "What's Next?" It opens Friday.

Attracting about 50,000 visitors annually, "Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers" traced the history of the region from 1865 to 2000. It told how a rural, agricultural area was transformed into the nation's second-biggest financial center, overcoming industrial setbacks, racial struggles and societal change.

Those elements are still there, but interactive digital displays have been added, including a picture booth where visitors can put themselves in historic pictures and email them home.

Open for anniversary

A short movie that tells the history of the region has been freshened up as well and gets a new narrator - Ramona Holloway of WLNK-FM, who came to Charlotte in 2001, when the original exhibit was opening.

Museum leaders wanted to update the exhibit in time for the Levine's 20th anniversary, which is being celebrated with an open house on Sunday.

New artifacts include Jimmie Johnson's fire-resistant racing suit, a 7-foot model of the Bank of America skyscraper and traffic barrels.

Yes, traffic barrels. Not only are they ubiquitous on Charlotte's expanding highways, but they were invented here in 1985 by an engineer named Tom Cory.

Another homegrown invention on display is a First Union ATM, a model one series from the 1970s. IBM developed much of the technology for ATM networks in Charlotte, and First Union was one of the first banks to use it.

Perhaps most astonishing to young visitors will be a 1970s workstation, known back in the day as a desk. It has a dial phone and an IBM Selectric typewriter. Museum workers are hunting for a '70s phone book to complete the motif.

Personal stories told

Photos of the 1976 Charlotte skyline are placed alongside a modern uptown image. Four skyscrapers were the city's pride then. In the modern photo, you can barely make them out as taller towers have shouldered them into obscurity.

A school bus, believed to be the last built in the 1970s for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools by Thomas Built Buses of High Point, has been turned into a small movie theater where a 1971 WBTV (Channel 3) newscast plays, reporting on the Supreme Court decision to allow busing to achieve racial balance in schools.

Also added is a talkback booth based on the StoryCorps program, where people can record oral histories and other memories that can be shared.

"People bring powerful, emotionally compelling history with them," says Hanchett. "Our job is to make a platform for them to share their stories."

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