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100 years: New Bern Historical Society to celebrate with interactive exhibit

New Bern Historical Society
Wikimedia Commons
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The New Bern Historical Society is putting on the finishing details for its 100th anniversary exhibit. The exhibit will be unveiled April 21 at the Duffy Exhibition Gallery at Tryon Palace.

Mickie Miller, executive director of the New Bern Historical Society (NBHS), is not a museum-goer. Looking at objects in display cases bores her, which is why the organization is putting together an interactive exhibit for its 100th anniversary that focuses on stories and storytellers. The anniversary exhibit shares the people and story behind each item.

"The objects compliment the stories and the people," she said. "It's not about the pretty silver or candlestick. It’s about this person, this former enslaved person who’s a freedman who crafted this beautiful silver. It’s his story."

The New Bern Historical Society is putting on the finishing details for its 100th anniversary exhibit. The exhibit will be unveiled April 21 at the Duffy Exhibition Gallery at Tryon Palace. The gallery is named after Minnette Chapman Duffy, who hosted the first New Bern Historical Society meeting in her home in 1923. She was also an ardent supporter of Tryon Palace’s reconstruction.

Miller says that collecting and sharing stories is what NBHS does best. Attendees can learn about the tales behind the items, like a two-inch thick, leather-bound ledger that contains the only written account of the Stanley-Spaight duel.

The exhibit is designed to be interactive, from sculptures you can walk into to projected maps that show New Bern’s evolution over its 300-year history. Vice President Kathy Morrison has been coordinating the events surrounding the anniversary.

"When you walk into it, it’s gonna be set up like a clock," she said.

While items and stories are on display on the around the room, in the center is a spiral-shaped "kinetic sculpture made up of historic postcards cascading down" that you can walk among, Morrison said.

A map projecting New Bern’s dynamic history, from a shipping and timber hub to a Civil War occupied territory to the Great Fire of 1922, will also be featured at the exhibit. Curator Jim Hodges, a native of the area, has spent the last few months carefully selecting the items to include. He shared why New Bern was a destination for businessmen and craftsmen.

"Bottom line there was money being made and that’s why you end up having silversmiths and goldsmiths," he said.

Hodges says New Bern’s early economy was advantaged by location and a sense of opportunity. The Neuse River allowed for extensive shipping and its history as a colonial capital made it a political hotspot, making the city the place to be in colonial America. Many of the items to be displayed are from that era of economic prosperity, but also to be featured are tales of New Bern's role in the Civil War.

The Historical Society also maintains the Civil War Battlefield Park, where Union troops exploited a weakness in the Confederate’s line of defense and took over the city. New Bern remained a Union controlled territory for the rest of the War.

Hodges said the city was at risk of losing its historic homes to war-time violence, but that the Union General Ambrose Burnside prohibited his soldiers from tearing things down.

NBHS is largely a volunteer-based organization. Many of their members are transplants who moved to the area. New Bern has always been a destination for immigrants and transplants. In the early 1700s, it was Swiss and German immigrants who started their settlement on the site of a former Tuscarora village. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, it was slaves forcibly brought here, freedmen seeking freedom, and people seeking economic opportunity. Today, it’s mostly retirees. Miller, who moved to New Bern from Minnesota, says the well-preserved and well-documented history of the area is what attracted her to the city.

"That sense of pride in the town, not wanting to cling to the past but to preserve it and keep it beautiful, that is what I find moving about New Bern ,'"she said.

NBHS is housed downtown in the Attmore-Oliver House, a white, three-story structure fashioned in the Greek-Revival style. Like many of New Bern's historic homes, the building is well-kept. The floors don't creak with every step and the furniture compliments the home's 18th- and 19th-century roots.

This respect and adoration for the city’s historic buildings and artifacts was not always the case. In the 1950s and 60s as Americans began relocating outside city limits, cities and businesses began reshaping downtown.

Downtown was really degrading during that time," Miller said.

Buildings were boarded up. Some historic structures of them were torn down and replaced with more modern buildings. But in the 1970s with the founding of the New Bern Preservation Foundation, Miller said "you could sense the will of the people to bring back what was still there and bring back what was about to be destroyed."

"Unlike a lot of towns, they really did," she added.

For 100 years, the New Bern Historical Society has worked to collect and share the city’s history. All will be on display and open to the public free of charge this April and for the rest of the year.

"It’s our gift to New Bern for our 100th anniversary," Morrison said.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée and two cats.