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Tucked away behind a locked, chain-link barrier on the second floor of Appalachian State University’s Old Belk Library building are the remains of a museum that documented hundreds of years of mountain history.
The Appalachian Cultural Museum, founded at the Boone university in 1989, closed its doors to regular public access in 2006 but maintained its holdings for use by students and historians. In February of this year, ASU officials decided to pull the museum’s plug for good, announcing that it “will not reopen, but its collection will have a new life and a strong impact.”
Reactions to the announcement were “a mixed bag,” said Neva Specht, associate dean of ASU’s College of Arts and Sciences, who heads a committee that is charged with dispersing the museum’s holdings.
“People had a real fondness for the museum when it was open, but it’s been closed for five years, and so a lot of people, students in particular, didn’t even know it was there,” she said. “There were certainly strong feelings among some people about it because they thought it was an important part of the university.”
Specht, who teaches Appalachian history courses, believes disbanding the museum is the right thing to do since the current budget climate leaves little hope of finding funds to reconstitute and reopen the museum. But she has her own mixed feelings.
“As a person who’s worked in museums, I think it’s sad when this happens,” she said. “At the same time, I think it would have been worse for these things to have just sat there in storage forever.”
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The museum’s former curator, retired history professor Chuck Watkins, assembled a remarkably eclectic set of collections at the museum, each of them related in some fashion to Appalachian history and culture.
Among the thousands of items in the museum’s inventory are the kind of relics you’d expect to find: antique tools, hand-stitched quilts, homemade dolls, baskets, pottery, woodcarvings and such. Some of the older items, such as several huge looms and a genuine moonshine still, are sizable and striking.
The museum also showcased more modern and offbeat facets of mountain life. There are pieces of contemporary folk art and a kitschy set of Appalachian-themed salt and pepper shakers.
One of the most unique collections consists of several pieces from the Land of Oz, a popular Wizard of Oz-based theme park in Beech Mountain that operated from 1970 to 1980.
They include some of the bricks from the park’s proverbial yellow brick road, some gaily-painted park fixtures and two wooden legs meant to be those of the (post-mortem) Wicked Witch of the West.
“This was all put together to show how broad Appalachia is, that it’s not just a bunch of mountain people standing barefoot in log cabins, or just a bunch of ski slopes,” Specht said. “The collections really represent the variety of Appalachian life.”
For several months, Specht and a few colleagues have been working to find the right home for everything in the museum. To begin with, some items that were donated have been or will be returned to the donors.
“Just today, I had a woman from Avery County come by to pick up a cradle and spinning wheel that’d she’d donated years ago,” Specht noted during an interview last week.
Other items are the university’s property and will in fact find new uses at other places on campus. “We’re trying hard to place things within the university that are a good fit,” Specht said.
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A 250-piece collection of self-portraits by mountain residents, for example, was transferred from the museum to ASU’s Turchin Center for the Visual Arts. Many paper records from the museum went to the Belk Library’s Appalachian Collection. And the university’s anthropology department will likely inherit the museum’s collection of more than 17,000 arrowheads and other Native American artifacts.
A few months from now, Specht said she’ll start the final phase of disseminating the museums holdings. She’s been in touch with numerous regional museums and will be contacting more to determine which ones are best suited for what remains.
Even the oddities in the former museum will find appropriate new digs, if things go according to plan. Those pieces from the Land of Oz? Specht has opened discussions with Emerald Mountain Properties, which owns the former theme-park site, and the Beech Mountain Historical Society, about preserving the items in a Beech Mountain museum.
By the time Specht is done, the Appalachian Cultural Museum will truly be a thing of the past, but she hopes it has a lively legacy.
“The overarching goal is to get these things out to the public as much as possible,” she said, “so that this history can continue to be seen.”