Levine Museum of the New South is known for connecting the past to the future and speaking on current issues. But what’s the future of the museum itself?
Museum officials announced plans last month to sell the 0.7-acre property located at 200 E. 7th Street in uptown Charlotte. CEO and President Kathryn Hill said Levine Museum is not closing but focusing on creating an experience that’s digital-first and community-centered.
“We are committed to deepening our impact by diversifying the ways that we deliver broadly accessible, highly compelling content that we develop with the communities we serve,” she said.
The museum will remain in the building it has occupied since 1996 over the next year while implementing its digitally focused vision. Many of Levine Museum’s current exhibits already have a virtual component, but Hill believes there could be more accessibility.
Color Your Perspective
“By digital-first, I do not mean digital-only,” she said. “We will meet people where they are through digital experiences, and through in-person events and exhibits distributed throughout the community in non-traditional museum spaces and in a central location.”
In August, Levine Museum will take another step in this direction with the release of its KnowCLT app. As users participate in a walking tour through Charlotte’s Second Ward, the app will use augmented reality to animate the history of the former Brooklyn neighborhood — including landmark buildings and people who called Brooklyn home before it was demolished during urban renewal.
Pre-pandemic, guests could experience similar technology within the museum. Brooklyn is a featured neighborhood included in the “#HomeCLT” exhibit, where visitors used their smartphones to bring the stories of six Charlotte neighborhoods to life. Through augmented reality, a map shows the change in demographics and income distribution over time in Brooklyn, Eastland Mall, Enderly Park, Hidden Valley, Dilworth and Sedgefield neighborhoods.
Creating a digital-first museum was not a recent decision. Hill said she and the museum’s board of directors have been strategizing since 2016, saying that now the time is right for transformation. As reported by The Charlotte Ledger, museum leadership began exploring the possibility of selling its uptown location as early as July 2020. Hill said the pandemic altered plans and delayed the process.
“When we had to close our doors during the pandemic, we did not miss a beat,” she explained. “We raised our community profile, and we reached more people through live-streamed programs than we could have reached in five years from our building. We will continue to hold in-person gatherings, but we will also make sure that our programs are broadly accessible.”
Within the last 12 months, Hill said the museum reached over 53,000 people through its virtual experiences.
Looking back on the legacy
Levine Museum has been ahead of the curve on conversations concerning social justice, confronting difficult issues not just in Charlotte but also on a national level. Hill said staff began creating authentic dialogue two decades prior to George Floyd’s death, which sparked national conversations on race.
She noted the February 2017 installation of K(NO)W Justice, K(NO)W Peace, for instance, was a “rapid response exhibit” following the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte police officer months earlier.
Image activist Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. had spent a decade curating the exhibit. He traveled to various cities and instances of social injustice around the country that garnered national attention, taking photos of the protests, movements and memorials. His original plan was to have an exhibition within a year. However, he received a call from the Levine Museum within a week after Scott’s murder asking if he was ready to showcase his work. The exhibit was slated to run for six months; it was extended twice due to positive community feedback.
“The conversation was necessary, and we weren’t done,” Jacobs said. “It was an uncomfortable conversation that was just so well done, so well-polished. It was fresh and the first one in the country at the time.”
Museum staff invited guest speakers to lead conversations on racism and social injustice and showed documentaries to extend the exhibit beyond the photographs.
“We thought this is the moment we need to display them, but we need to build context,” Hill added. “We need to help Charlotte understand that this is our city and that what was happening was part of a long history of discrimination in housing, in criminal justice and in school segregation.”
Levine Museum hasn’t commissioned an exhibit exactly like Jacobs’ since, but, Hill said staff decided to invest time and resources into those they could pull together quickly to address relevant topics.
Throughout the pandemic, the museum hosted a series of virtual conversations called #ShapingCLT that featured discussions on topics ranging from homelessness to immigration reform to the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on communities of color. These conversations allowed the community to explore current issues and provide participants with opportunities to get civically engaged.
“Levine is not the largest museum, and it’s not the newest museum, but it’s always been at the center of what was really going on in the community,” Jacobs said. “I want them to be free and to continue doing this amazing work that they’re known for.”
Hill reiterates that the museum isn’t going away with the sale of its uptown location. She said the organization’s work over the next year and beyond is mission-driven.
“Whether the programs are digital, whether they are community-based dialogues and gatherings and celebrations, or whether they are site-based exhibits, we will continue to enter history through the present moment.”