The former director of the North Carolina Museum of History reflects on his tenure with the institution and plans for retirement.
by Susanna Klingenberg | photography by Alex Boerner
When a fast-paced, numbers-driven marketing executive sets his sights on a history museum, change is sure to follow. Fitting, really, since change is one of history’s constants.
Ken Howard took on the role of director of the North Carolina Museum of History in 2007 after a career in the healthcare sector, including serving as senior vice president of sales and marketing at Medic Computer Systems, Inc. in Raleigh. He believed from the start that history education should be fun, interactive and engaging, so if you’ve ever shivered at the Blackbeard exhibit, posed with the plaza’s Civil War cannon or lifted a well-curated glass at History + Highballs, you have Howard to thank. Howard retired from his post in early October, so we spoke to him about his tenure and what the future holds.
When you reflect on your 16 years as director, what are you most proud of?
From my years in business, I have always been a numbers guy. I wanted to find a way to increase visitation. If we increased visitation, we increased the number of people learning about NC history.
When I arrived in 2007, the museum was seeing 250,000 visitors a year. But by 2019, just before COVID, we had built visitorship to 465,000 visitors a year.
The key was making it a more interesting museum — bringing exhibits people would want to come see, exhibits that were fun, not just a case of artifacts and a panel on a wall. So, we started with an exhibit on the Lost Colony. It was very interactive, entertaining and engaging for all ages. It brought over 50,000 people to the museum just for that exhibit.
When I got there, the museum didn’t have a permanent exhibit on the history of the state. So we conducted a fundraising campaign, along with some state funding, to build the current “Story of North Carolina” exhibit.
This is technically your third retirement. What convinced you to leave your second retirement for the job?
It’s a funny story! While I was employed in the health-care industry, I’d been the treasurer of the museum’s membership group, the Museum of History Associates. I had retired from my marketing job, and Lisbeth Evans, the secretary of cultural resources at the time, called me and the chairman of the group to discuss fundraising for the museum. And I said, “Look, it’s hard to raise money when the museum is not having new exhibits. The museum needs to create new and better exhibits.”
A while later, she called again and said, “The director’s going to be retiring. You’re not doing anything. You need to come in here and run the museum.”
I was going quail hunting with my mentor, Frank Daniels Jr., and Dave Phillips, the former state commerce secretary. “You know,” I told them after dinner, “I’ve been asked to take this job.” Dave said, “It’s something you should do.” And Frank said, “It’s your turn to give back.” “You really think so?” I asked. And they emphatically agreed. So I called Secretary Evans and said, “OK, I’ll try it for six months.”
I found out later that she knew about the hunting trip, and she’d told Frank and Dave, “I need you to talk Ken into taking this job.”
She stacked the deck!
She stacked the deck. And after six months, I thought, you know, I like history. I love North Carolina. And it was a good challenge: “How do I make the museum stand out? How do we keep it fresh?”
Those questions are what have kept me there for 16 years.
How did the role change the way you think about history?
This job confirmed something I already knew: history education is so important. Look at current events. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? We’ve got to look back and say, “We’ve seen this. Let’s learn from what we did the first time.” People might not know all the dates and names in history, and that’s OK. But it amazes me what people don’t know about history in general. If we don’t know history, we’ll repeat what was done in the past.
What’s next for the NC Museum of History?
A new director hasn’t been named yet. But we do know that what’s next is a $180 million expansion and renovation. It’s huge.
The museum will close for a while, so I know they will be looking for some temporary space to house all the artifacts as well as a place for the collection and design staff to work on the new exhibits.
What can people look forward to in the renovated museum?
You can expect more hands-on elements, a large interactive children’s discovery gallery, more exhibit space, and more inclusive representation of NC communities. Plus, the new atrium will be able to seat about 450, so it’ll be great for hosting events.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be joining some nonprofit boards and spending more time at our place in Jackson Hole. Of course, my wife and I want to travel, too. And I offered to keep helping the Museum of History Foundation with fundraising. I hope they take me up on it!
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.