Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Cape Fear Museum (Blue Star Museums & NEA Big Read Participant)

allow us to tell a richer story. The arts, in broader sense, provide
opportunities to use all of our senses. - See more at:
allow us to tell a richer story. The arts, in broader sense, provide
opportunities to use all of our senses. - See more at:

Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, first opened its doors in 1898 as a Confederate relic museum. Today, it is the oldest history museum in North Carolina and is home to a broad and unique collection of objects. There are more than 52,000 items at the museum representing regional, national, and international art, history, and science artifacts. What makes Cape Fear even more unique is that not only are they a Blue Star Museum, but they have also formerly hosted a NEA Big Read event. 

Cape Fear has ongoing exhibits honoring the lives and history of veterans. During their Big Read cycle, the community chose to read The Things They Carried by Timothy O’Brien—a novel about American soldiers in the Vietnam War. We spoke with the museum’s Executive Director Sheryl Mays to find out the significance of Cape Fear’s wartime history, why the museum continues to highlight this history, why they chose to host a literary program like NEA Big Read, and what makes them a returning Blue Star Museum participant.

NEA: Why did the museum choose to create their online exhibit called World War II Through the Eyes of Cape Fear and host a Big Read event on American soldiers?

SHERYL MAYS: The online exhibit has been up since 2002. There was a grant in partnership with the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) that launched that particular project. We actually chose to read The Things They Carried is because we were hosting the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit called Mail Call, developed by the National Postal Museum. The exhibit by Smithsonian explores the history of military postal system and how troops and families back home communicated. That was one of the reasons for choosing the book The Things They Carried and why we applied for money to do the Big Read. [NEA Big Read] was an opportunity for the museum to look at developing programs in a slightly different way, to include the arts by including literacy.

In many ways, this project brought together more people to get involved in the discussion and become interested in the exhibit. We have Camp Lejeune, which is an hour and a half north of Wilmington. We have the Coast Guard stationed here. Wilmington, in World War II, was a site where the Liberty ships were built. Wilmington has a long history of the participation in the wartime efforts. In our main exhibit, Cape Fear Stories, we do have a section looking at Wilmington through its military involvement. It is part of our long-standing exhibit. 

Overall the Big Read gave people an opportunity, looking at the arts, to deepen their experience with the exhibits and the history as well as provide a multidisciplinary approach to the topic of history. Not just through the standing exhibit but through other outlets. It gave people a richer understanding of the history through literature. It really broadened and deepened peoples understanding beyond touring an exhibit.  

A postcard with a drawing by a child. The postcard reads, thank you.

For the Mail Call exhibit, Cape Fear scanned images of Wilmington postcards from their collection, printed them, and encouraged visitors to write a note to active duty military personnel or a family member. Cape Fear collected, sorted, and mailed them to Blue Star Families for distribution. Photo courtest: Cape Fear Museum/New Hanover County.

NEA: As one of the only museums that has hosted an NEA Big Read project, could you talk more about why the museum chose to participate in the program? 

MAYS: One of the main reasons for hosting was the opportunity to build partnerships with a wide variety of cultural arts and social organizations. We reached out to a broad coalition of organizations to form partnerships with our New Hanover County Library, UNCW, YMCA, and Smart Start. It was a great way to work with our library. It was also a unique opportunity to work with other community partners to promote literacy.

The reasons for choosing this book were its realtionship to the theme of our exhibit and that it provided our community with ways to reflect on the lives of soldiers. Everyone's touched by the military. It seemed to me that people wanted to be involved because the theme is familiar. It was a way for the community to participate. There were lots of programs involved involved. There were book discussions, you could come to the exhibit, and you could hear Timothy O'Brien's keynote speech. People were interested in this subject matter because wars expand our understanding of history. It also resonates with the public now.

NEA: What was the most successful NEA Big Read event and why?

MAYS: The keynote with Timothy O'Brien was the most successful event. The auditorium at UNCW seats 1,000 people and it was completely full. The audience ranged from the general public to students and Vietnam veterans. Through the book, people wanted to learn more about the military and the history of the military in our region. People got more involved. Everything from putting together care packages for the soldiers, to discussing the book, to UNCW creating an exhibit where they presented deployed students, faculty, and staff’s actual items they carried. There were lots of ways that the Big Read touched people's lives. It was a full involvement of the community.

The idea behind it was to bring all of these groups together. They may not seem to have a relationship, but in the end, they did. There were relationships by people involved in the Big Read that might not have happened before. I think because the theme of the military is still very present, people have sons and daughters and husbands that are enlisted or deployed even now, it resonated in this community. 

NEA: Why does Cape Fear participate in Blue Star Museums? 

MAYS: We have lots of military families in our area. With Camp Lejeune and the Coast Guard station nearby, it's important to provide opportunities for them and for their families and to support them. We are a community museum. We see our role as supporting the community in a variety of ways. One way to do that is to provide free admission for those military families. We've been participating it for a number of years. 

NEA: What do you want people to know about Cape Fear? What’s unique about it?

MAYS: We are a history and science museum. I think one of the things we have done is that we have been flexible. We started out as a Confederate relic museum, and now we are a community museum that interprets the history, science, and culture of the region. We have changed over time to look at our region more broadly. We work to interpret and help people understand this region. It's a very unique region.

When people come to the museum, a lot of visitors tell us they're not sure what Cape Fear means, but they leave with an understanding of the history of this region. We focus on history within 50 miles, but also try to place the regional and local history into the context of what's happening nationally. You get a real sense of how our environment shaped our history.

NEA: How can families prepare to visit the museum? What are one or two tips for getting the most out of a visit to Cape Fear?  

MAYS: Allow plenty of time for your visit to explore the museum and our new outdoor park. In the outdoor park, engage with hands-on exhibits, explore gardens featuring native and adaptive plants, and discover historic maritime objects and images related to the Cape Fear region. After an encounter with our giant sloth in the museum’s lobby, grab a scavenger hunt and start in our main exhibit, Cape Fear Stories.Along the way, there are plenty of things to do from assembling a reproduction Indian vessel, like those found by archaeologists working in our area, to playing a tune on our jukebox. We recently opened Starring Cape Fear!, an exhibit that looks at 30 years of TV and film production. Don’t miss seeing one of the original turtle animatronic heads from the movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

A wide shot photo of the exhibit, which includes historical text and artifacts.

Starring Cape Fear! film exhibit. Photo courtesy: Cape Fear Museum/New Hanover County

NEA: What's your favorite Blue Star Museum (next to your own museum, of course) and why?

MAYS: We have other museums here, the Wrightsville Beach Museum and the Burgwin-Wright Museum that also opened their doors as Blue Star Museums. By our colleagues opening their museums, it gives military families more choices when they were visiting the area, more places where they can go. What I love is not naming a favorite, but that I really love to see that community participation from our sister/brother museums. It's wonderful to see museums collaborate and participate in programs together. 

NEA: Complete this thought. The arts matter because… 

MAYS: They allow us to tell a richer story. The arts, in the broadest sense, provide opportunities to use all of our senses. It gives us a multisensory experience which enriches our understanding of history, science, and the arts. When we add music to an exhibit, when we have photographs along with artifacts, when we add video, when we have programs where people read their personal stories, that allows us to tell a better story…a richer story. A richer story about our history.

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