Spotlight: Seeing is believing

Travis Long

Travis Long

by Jessie Ammons

The N.C. Cultural Resources building, nestled between the General Assembly and Governor’s Mansion, houses thousands of rotating shelves filled with carefully organized archives – everything from government records to a citizen’s saved letters from World War II.

“We have miles of stacks,” says state archivist Sarah Koonts. Seven more stories of data are just a short walk through an underground tunnel that connects to the state record center next door. It’s a jackpot for genealogists and historians, and one that many Raleighites have no idea exists. “We’re kind of a secret,” Koonts says. “Every state has archives, but we have probably one of the most extensive collections in terms of the depth and breadth.”

You can see that for yourself this month at the Treasures of Carolina exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History.

The exhibit, which runs through June 19, took two years to curate. “We started by thinking about what story we wanted to tell. That was hard for us, because we love all of our documents.” After consulting with the history museum’s experts, the archivists landed on the notion of showing rather than telling. The result is an overview of North Carolina history told through individual stories.

“For example, we talk about the protection of rights – like the right to own your own land – by including our oldest will, one from 1665,” she says. “It’s a woman’s will, which is unusual, and she signed it herself because she owned property.” Instead of a scholarly discussion of the state’s history during prohibition or the legalization of the sale of alcohol, the exhibit shows that era’s impact with NASCAR driver Junior Johnson’s indictment for running moonshine.

Preserving documents from centuries ago can be a challenge. “In talking about some of our treasures, we do have some things that are extremely valuable but also very fragile. You have to restrict the amount of light they get.” Thus, certain records are on display for an abbreviated time. Today’s digital commentary has none of those restrictions. Embedded in the metadata of live Tweets during political speeches or Facebook posts rather than written letters, these digital records are also archived and on display.

“We have our oldest document, which is a map from the Outer Banks in 1580, and then today we get (Geographic Information Services) data,” Koonts says. “It’s an interesting challenge to think about all of that.” It’s all in a day’s work for one of Raleigh’s master storytellers.