Durham’s Gem: The Museum of Durham History

By Rob Omondi, MPP ’23

Photo credit: Brand Fortner

Colorful banners dot the sidewalk leading up to the Museum of Durham History (MoDH) in downtown Durham in what was once Durham’s busy bus depot. The banners represent the Faces of Durham, a rotating historical exhibit showcasing stories of individuals who have played a pivotal role in shaping the Bull City’s legacy, like Rev. Pauli Murray, Dr. Phail Wynn, and Ann Atwater.

The moment you walk through the doors of the museum you realize how much history is packed into the small space. Most popular is a touch screen timeline of the city’s history dating back to the 1600s. The timeline makes Durham’s history feel real, letting you visualize what life was like for Durham residents then and now. With that, the museum plays a crucial role in collecting Durham’s history and shaping how the community views its future. “MoDH was started as a clearinghouse for connecting the dots of Durham’s history,” said Patrick Mucklow, executive director at the museum. “Primarily, we have told the story of those who have contributed to Durham’s history.”

“I call it Durham’s gem… I see it as a tapestry of Durham. All these stories and events get woven together in this amazing time and place.”

Ruth Dzau, Board member

Voices of Durham

Currently, most of MoDH’s visitors are newcomers and those visiting Durham. “People know why they love Durham and why they came here. Our key objective is to tell the Durham story in a way that reminds them of the uniqueness of Durham’s special character and personality,” Mucklow articulated with fervor.

Included in Durham’s 2004 Masterplan as a necessity for the city, the museum’s first decade saw remarkable growth with a unique focus on oral history. Through, photos, video and audio, the museum captures the voices of those who have experienced and studied Durham’s history, from the railroad boom of the early 1800s to Durham’s school integration of 1969. An example of a recent exhibition, More Than Just a Game: the NCCU vs. NC A&T Football Rivalry, the museum chronicled the famed football rivalry between North Carolina Central University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University.

It wasn’t always this way. When Ruth Dzau and her husband Victor, former Chancellor of the Duke Health system, moved to Durham 17 years ago, “people came to Durham to work, but not live,” said Ruth Dzau. But the Dzaus were resolute and insisted on living in the community they served. “If you want to be a community member you can’t live anywhere but Durham,” she said. Dzau became involved in the museum’s inception through her friend, the late MaryAnn Black, who served as a Durham County Commissioner and was then Duke Health’s associate vice president for the Office of Community Relations, and later a State Representative. “I was privileged to have MaryAnn as my mentor and we became very, very good friends. She knew the pulse of this place. She listened to people.” Ruth Dzau has been involved with the museum ever since and has served on the museum’s board for a total of seven years.

MaryAnn Black
MaryAnn Black, an early supporter of the museum.

A Museum without Walls in Partnership with Community

Despite its small size, the museum has reached the Durham community beyond the confines of its physical space in downtown Durham. Exhibits such as History Groves, have added plaques and benches dedicated to neighborhood leaders around town, and the Museum Without Walls has enabled MoDH to create exhibits in the community, like at Lincoln Community Hospital and Duke Regional to spark people’s interests in Durham’s history. Most importantly, Mucklow is excited to bring parts of the museum to students from grade school to college. “We really try to focus on getting our exhibits into schools through traveling exhibits that go into area schools free of charge,” he said.

Jerry Gershenhorn, a professor of history at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), and a former board member at MoDH emphasized how the museum has been a useful learning opportunity for college students through exhibits and internships. Students from Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and NCCU have helped in the curation of exhibits and volunteered their time to support the museum. Gershenhorn sees partnerships with diverse communities in Durham as critical to MoDH’s role in the city.

A map of history groves on the museum website.

Asked about a pivotal moment in MoDH history, Gershenhorn talked about curating an exhibition about Louis Austin, who was an African American civil rights leader in Durham from the 1930s until his death in 1971. Austin was a journalist and the founder of the Carolina Times newspaper which became a prominent voice for the African American community. This exhibition inspired a teacher from Austin’s hometown to bring more attention to Austin’s life by getting a historical marker placed in Austin’s hometown of Enfield, North Carolina. “Seeing participants from Austin’s hometown learn about Louis Austin was a particularly gratifying moment for me in the exhibition since it showed how more people were starting to pay attention to Louis Austin’s unique place in North Carolina’s history,” said Gershenhorn, who is also the author of “Louis Austin and The Carolina Times: A Life in the Long Black Freedom Struggle.” The book won the 2018 Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction.

A Changing Durham and the Museum’s Future

As the museum plans its second decade, Mucklow said it looks toward building a bigger more permanent facility and creating more visibility for its exhibits. Meantime, the museum continues to build new exhibits. In the Fall of 2022, The Floyd McKissick exhibit will take place on the 100th anniversary of McKissick’s birth, and it will celebrate his role in the civil rights struggle in Durham and North Carolina. There will also be a unique curation opening on May 6th dubbed Dining out in Durham, focused on the evolution of food and restaurants in Durham over the years and how the scene has changed to include more ethnic restaurants.

“Durham has changed tremendously,” said Dzau. “Which is why the stories of Durham are important. You lose history and the perspective so quickly, so this story room concept was very critical. Getting people engaged in the events of history and (hearing) different people’s history. We have always included the perspectives of those who were there.” She continued by sharing what the museum means to her. “I call it Durham’s gem… I see it as a tapestry of Durham. All these stories and events get woven together in this amazing time and place. I’m very passionate about the museum.”