What’s in a name? If you ask the cohort of UNC Greensboro alumni who recently received two prestigious national awards for their exhibition at UNCG Auditorium, the question is terrain rich in opportunities for learning and asking tough questions of past and present practices of commemoration.
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has awarded UNCG’s Public History program with a 2019 Award of Excellence for the exhibition “Etched in Stone? Governor Charles Aycock and the Power of Commemoration,” which is on permanent display in UNCG Auditorium. The exhibition explores the topic of commemoration and the legacy of Charles Brantley Aycock, North Carolina’s governor from 1901 to 1905.
The award is the nation’s most prestigious competition for recognition of achievement in state and local history. UNCG is the only institution in the state of North Carolina to receive the award.
UNCG was also awarded a 2019 History in Progress Award for the exhibition. The winner of this award exhibits exceptional scholarship and is exceedingly entrepreneurial in terms of funding, partnerships, collaborations, creative problem solving, or unusual project design and inclusiveness.
Only 5 percent or fewer of the total number of Award of Excellence winners can be given the History in Progress Award. UNCG is one of just three organizations nationwide to receive it.
“This project is a perfect example of the excellence embedded in the work of UNC Greensboro students,” said UNCG Provost Dana Dunn. “With the guidance of talented faculty, the project was conceived and executed as a valuable learning opportunity for students, designed to enhance their career success post graduation. I’m very proud of the student team who did this work and believe it will be a valuable resource for our campus for many years to come.”
“Etched in Stone?” sheds light on Aycock’s advancement of public education in North Carolina – and his support of white supremacy and his role in the disenfranchisement of black voters in the early 1900s.
UNCG Auditorium was originally named “Aycock Auditorium” until being renamed in 2016. When the name was changed, the Board of Trustees charged UNCG’s Public History program with creating a plan to interpret the history and legacy of Aycock in the auditorium that formerly bore his name.
The project was led by Dr. Benjamin Filene, then director of the Public History program and now chief curator at the North Carolina Museum of History. As director, Filene gave students the freedom to shape the project and ask the hard questions, while simultaneously acting as liaisons between various stakeholders including the UNCG Board of Trustees, Provost Dunn, and the general public.
“At every stage we faced the inevitable hard decisions about what do we cut out and what do we leave in. What do we make big? What do we make smaller? What is it that we want visitors to wrestle with? And so there was a turning point where everything came together,” said Filene.
As part of a two-year master’s program in museum studies, a cohort of ten graduate students took turns working on all aspects of the exhibition, including conducting research, presenting to stakeholders, budgeting, and collaborating with a design firm. Students walked away with real-life work experience and a highly regarded permanent exhibition in their portfolio.
“That’s a nice thing for all of us to be able to put on our resumes and talk about as emerging professionals, but it is also very exciting to be able to do something that reflects well back on the department and UNCG,” said Laura-Michal Balderson ’18 MA. “My time at UNCG helped prepare me to engage with visitors in a thoughtful way, to recognize what their expectations are at a historic site, and then be able to speak with them in ways that are honest and that deal with hard truths and complicated ideas.”
The exhibition opened to the public in the spring of 2018, after being featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education that February. It is located in the second-floor foyer of UNCG Auditorium and is open during public events.
A presentation of the awards will be made at a special banquet during the Association’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia on August 30. Filene and several students who were involved in the project will accept the award on behalf of UNCG.
For more information about the Public History program at UNCG, visit his.uncg.edu/graduate/overview.html.
To learn more about AASLH and the Leadership in History Awards Program, visit aaslh.org.
Story by Matthew Bryant, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Design Dimension