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Peninger leaving as Charlotte Museum of History CEO after leading its comeback

Charlotte Museum of History director Kay Peninger sits holding a copy of a replica map of the Waterways of Mecklenburg County, and she is surrounded by some of the sections of the larger project, a cut-paper map by Lauren Rosenthal which shows all of the county's streams and creeks, their systems and origins. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
Charlotte Museum of History director Kay Peninger sits holding a copy of a replica map of the Waterways of Mecklenburg County, and she is surrounded by some of the sections of the larger project, a cut-paper map by Lauren Rosenthal which shows all of the county's streams and creeks, their systems and origins. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Kay Peninger, who is credited with the comeback of Charlotte Museum of History after it was hit hard by the recession, is leaving for a job at the Museum of the Bible that opens in the fall in Washington.

She’ll serve as director of museum education for the Museum of the Bible, which is led by Tony Zeiss, the longtime leader of Central Piedmont Community College. Peninger said she has worked with Zeiss before on a joint program between the museum and CPCC called “A Trifling Place: A Conversation with President George Washington and Captain James Jack.”

Peninger, the president and CEO of Charlotte Museum of History, has led the museum for four years.

Before she took the job, the museum had closed for a period of time to pay off debt. When Peninger heard about the opening, she said she was excited at first, but then worried about the state of the museum. Ultimately, she decided to accept the position because she had fallen in love with the Hezekiah Alexander House, the oldest home in Mecklenburg County.

“It was a challenge that I welcomed with open arms,” Peninger said.

Peninger knew the museum needed to be relevant to the community, have the trust of the public and be something residents valued.

“The museum is in a completely different place now,” she said.

Peninger broadened the museum’s interpretation of history to include the contributions from enslaved people and the Catawba Indian Nation. Previously, it had just included European migration in colonial times.

She was successful because she rebuilt partnerships and developed new ones, said Mary Newsom, current vice chair and expected incoming chairperson of the board.

“I really think that she has been transformational,” she said.

Peninger was also an advocate for the larger issue of preservation in the Charlotte area and organized a merger with Historic Charlotte, a nonprofit focused on preservation.

Newsom said through sponsorships and grants, the number of programs and events hosted by the museum grew from a few dozen in 2013 to 170 in 2016.

The museum is now debt free and in good financial standing with a $4 million endowment, which Newsom credits to Peninger’s work. Peninger says the museum needs to continue building on its progress so far and focus on education, preservation, fiscal responsibility and relationships.

“The museum really has a bright future,” Peninger said.

After Peninger leaves later this month, Lisa Gray will act as interim director. Gray has more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, including at the Mooresville Soup Kitchen and the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

The museum expects to announce the new president in four to six months.

The board has not yet talked about the search process, but they are looking for someone who will keep up with the museum’s programs and expand its impact, Newsom said.

“I certainly hope that we will find someone just as good as Kay,” she said. “I’m optimistic.”

Jamie Gwaltney: 704-358-5612, @jamielgwaltney

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