On the Road Again

Mountain Heritage Day activities will include the opening of a Smithsonian exhibit chronicling American ‘Journey Stories’


As a young girl growing up in Louisiana, Pamela Meister enjoyed cultivating her love of history by visiting museums in New Orleans. Then, as a high school senior, she had an opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., home of the nation’s most famous museum complex, the Smithsonian Institution. She visited two Smithsonian facilities – the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History. “It was love at first sight,” recalls Meister, now curator in WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center. “I was very excited about the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian museums and they were every bit as wonderful as I had imagined.” Eight years later, Meister’s first job after graduate school was in Washington. “I visited at least one of the Smithsonian museums every week while I was there,” she said.

This fall, Meister and other members of the WCU community, local residents and tourists will be able to experience the Smithsonian in Cullowhee when “Journey Stories” comes to the Mountain Heritage Center. The traveling Smithsonian exhibit will be on display at the museum beginning on Mountain Heritage Day – Saturday, Sept. 29 – and continuing through Friday, Nov. 9. The exhibit tells the story of migration and mobility throughout American history. Whether by ships or wagons, railroads or planes, or by their own two feet, Americans have always moved – often by choice, although sometimes by force or economic circumstances, said Scott Philyaw ’83, director of the Mountain Heritage Center. The exhibit is composed of seven freestanding kiosks, with audio stations, a digital slideshow, a selection of artifacts and other interactive components. The “Journey Stories” showing in Cullowhee is made possible by the North Carolina Humanities Council and is part of the Museum on Main Street program, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and state humanities councils nationwide. Support for the exhibit is provided through Congress. The showing in Cullowhee is part of the exhibit’s six-stop tour of North Carolina scheduled for 2012-13.

WCU public history students taught by Jessie Swigger, assistant professor in the Department of History, have been working on an accompanying exhibit that focuses on local journey stories. The student exhibit will be on display throughout the Jackson County Public Library complex in Sylva while the Smithsonian exhibit is being shown at the Mountain Heritage Center. Students in an “Introduction to Public History” class conducted research and presented exhibit proposals to a committee of historians, museum professionals and community partners. Five proposals were chosen and, during the spring semester, students in an “Introduction to Museums” class turned the ideas into an exhibit, “In, Out, Through and Back Again: Smoky Mountain Journeys.” The student exhibit will focus on five topics: the Frizzell family’s migration to California, the integration of education in Jackson County, Cherokee women’s use of basket-making to preserve their traditions and economic independence, the story of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and the Caldwell family of Cataloochee. During the fall semester, WCU students will serve as docents for the Smithsonian exhibit and as support staff for special events at the Mountain Heritage Center and county library.

Meister, Swigger and Philyaw traveled to Burgaw in June to undergo training in how to install the “Journey Stories” exhibit, which is shipped in about 15 crates, with each crate weighing 200 to 250 pounds. The exhibit will be trucked in two days before it is scheduled to open at WCU. The museum staff will be under pressure to get it installed and operating properly, but Philyaw said that is a small price to pay for having it in Cullowhee.

“It’s an honor to be chosen to host a Smithsonian exhibit,” he said. “The Mountain Heritage Center’s collaborative work with regional organizations impressed the selection committee, and it’s also a testament to the strength of the center’s other programs and exhibits.” Philyaw noted that “Journey Stories” will fit in well with the museum’s permanent exhibit, “Migration of the Scotch-Irish People,” and a new one focusing on Horace Kephart. “We are excited to open ‘Journey Stories’ on Mountain Heritage Day, when thousands of visitors will be on campus to enjoy it,” Philyaw said.

Photos courtesy of Library of Congress