One of my favorite things to do is visit museums and historic sites, and I might as well make good use of it. So from now on, when I get back from one of my historical excursions, I’ll be posting an informal (but hopefully informed) analysis of the sites I visit, from the perspective of somebody who’s both an ex-public historian and an enthusiastic visitor.
Last night I got back from a trip to North Carolina, where I visited three fantastic places, two of them for the first time. I’ll discuss them one at a time over the next few days. The first stop on my itinerary was Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Winston-Salem.
Old Salem is a sort of Carolina Piedmont version of Colonial Williamsburg. The site was first settled in the mid-1700’s by members of the Moravian Church. The church maintained ownership of the land, leasing it to the inhabitants, and also organized the community’s standards to conform with its religious guidelines. Single men and women, for example, lived in separate dormitory/workhouses; members of the community were divided into “choirs,” groups organized by age and gender. Eventually the village became part of the town of Winston-Salem, but the Moravian Church is still very much a presence there.
Old Salem Museums & Gardens is actually a museum complex, composed of several different institutions. Most prominent is the village itself, a street of restored and reconstructed buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are private residences, but a few are accessible to visitors and feature living history demonstrations inside. My favorite was the Single Brothers’ House, where the unmarried men lived and worked; you can watch reenactors engaged in the same crafts here that kept the village and its trade with the surrounding area going. Another notable stop is the local tavern, originally intended to keep unruly visitors isolated from the residents of the religious community.
Not all the buildings in the village area are run by Old Salem. Some of the restored and re-built houses are private residences, and a few of them are operated as local restaurants. Across the square from the restored street is Salem College, originally a Moravian girls’ school. Next to that is the local Moravian church, a lovely architectural gem built in 1800. Members of the congregation open the building and take questions from visitors on some afternoons, and it’s well worth taking the time to stop by.
Also nearby is God’s Acre, the Moravian burial ground. The same division by age and gender that characterized worship also determined burial patterns, so that members of a particular choir would be buried together. All the grave markers are the same, forming an unbroken pattern across the lawn, and the burials date from the 1700’s to the current day. It’s an incredibly sobering sight.
I should point out that the buildings in the restored area vary greatly by date. On some days the interpretive focus is the eighteenth century, on others the nineteenth. Because Old Salem interprets such a long span of the community’s history, you won’t get the sense of visiting a particular time that you’ll get at a site like Williamsburg, which is more strictly focused on the late colonial and Revolutionary era. I don’t mean this as a criticism, and in fact, I think that limiting the village’s scope to a particular period would have been doing its long history a tremendous disservice.
Along with the village, Old Salem Museums and Gardens contains the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and the Old Salem Toy Museum, both housed in a modern museum center near the entrance, along with a gift shop. The toy museum’s collection ranges from ancient times to the twentieth century. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to see it before closing. I did, however, tour MESDA, and I’m very glad I did. It was the best collection of the South’s early material culture I’ve ever seen. I’ll admit that I was a little hesitant about using my limited time for a tour. When I hear “decorative arts museum,” I usually think of a museum that’s more about objects and materials than interpretation, but these galleries aren’t just for antique aficionados. The museum covers the Chesapeake, lowcountry, and backcountry from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. The pieces are arranged in period rooms, many of which are furnished with original architectural elements from contemporary buildings.
What amazed me about many of these items wasn’t so much their craftsmanship, but the fact that they still exist at all. Seventeenth-century furniture items from Carolina and the Chesapeake are scarce indeed, but you’ll see several fine examples in MESDA’s galleries. There’s also an impressive amount of material from the frontiers and the mountains, so the exhibits aren’t limited to the rice and tobacco plantations.
Trained guides conduct all the visitors through the rooms on tours that last about forty-five minutes. The pieces are arranged naturally, as they would have been in their original settings, instead of behind glass or velvet ropes. The overall effect is remarkable. The guides are well-informed and extremely professional. If you’ve got any interest at all in the history of the South, you owe it to yourself to take a tour. It’ll give you an insight into the circumtances of life across three centuries that you won’t get anywhere else.
If you want to tour OSM&G, you’ll have the option of purchasing tickets for a limited number of the buildings and museums or one all-purpose ticket that will give you access to the whole shebang. I’d advise you to set aside the better part of a day and spring for the all-access pass. Take your time, wander around the village, eat in one of the restaurants, and hit all the museums. I didn’t come close to seeing everything, but I was there for three hours, and would’ve been happy to stay much longer. In terms of both the content and the presentation, the interpretation at OSM&G has got to be equal to that of any museum complex or historic site in the country.