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Pandemic leads to increased interest in Northeast Georgia History Center

By Jane Harrison 
 
A cast of characters – including a demure educator with a stunning smile, a quick and articulate tech whiz, and a witty twice-degreed historian – inhabited a Gainesville collection of relics during the coronavirus shutdown and exploded it into cyberspace.
 
While almost everybody stayed home, staff at the Northeast Georgia History Center beamed historic figures like Thomas Jefferson, Clara Barton, and Juliet Gordon Low onto screens of thousands of house-bound students and curious viewers yearning for historical intrigue. Through webisodes, webcasts, livestreams, and podcasts, the Academy Street museum reached beyond its namesake region to the West Coast and across the Atlantic, developing a cumulative following of 10,000.
 
Demand for programming pushed Executive Director Glen Kyle and staff into high performance mode, literally as they donned tricorn hats and bum pads, to present the weird and the staid, brave and timid, and colorful palate of characters that paint American history. What resulted is a fun, innovative, interactive approach to the past that mixes thespian talents and homemade costumes with high tech methods and deep knowledge to excite young students and maybe provide adults an impressive historic tidbit to share at dinner parties.
 
The shutdown “was really good for our major outreach,” Kyle said last month out-of-costume in a plaid shirt and jeans in the museum atrium. When the doors closed, “many things expanded that may not have otherwise.” He credits a small energetic staff, competent team, and supportive board for putting the center near the frontlines of education about America’s past.
 
“There’s an advantage to having a small team and a small museum … we’re expanding like a start-up,” said Libba Beaucham, Media and Communication Director. “This is the first time people have heard about us outside of Georgia.” Beaucham, who also doubles onscreen as founder of the Girl Scouts, pours her energy out in the center’s Cottrell Digital Studio, heart of its cyber being. She started promoting it to a national audience when the shutdown began.
 
Followers across the U.S.
Not burdened by bureaucratic strangleholds, creativity and ingenuity flow. By not getting “bogged down” in red tape, the center surged “years ahead of many bigger museums,” Kyle said. He found that folks from California, Texas, and even a follower in the United Kingdom seek perspectives from this community on national and international topics.
 
Teachers and parents of home-schooled students discover the past throbbing with vitality through live webcasts created in the studio. That’s where Education Director Marie Walker’s lessons come to life. A costumed British Redcoat in studio might appear to pace outside a 1770s New England edifice, thanks to a backdrop projected onto the studio green screen. Not only that, characters like Benedict Arnold can “see” the audience and answer questions on-screen through video conferencing.
 
Walker designs lessons that focus on 20 historic characters, ranging from Civil War soldiers to Harriet Tubman and Rosie the Riveter, to meet Georgia Standards of Excellence. When schools canceled class, word spread beyond Georgia to develop a national following of schools with similar standards for history classes.
 
As summer started, Walker invited students to “Virtual Summer Camps” starring men and women from the American Revolution, the early American frontier, and the Civil War. She strives to tell stories from multiple perspectives depicting the melting pot that is America.
 
Walker sews all her own costumes using patterns replicating authentic historical clothing. She especially enjoys portraying Clara Barton, Civil War Angel of the Battlefield and founder of the American Red Cross. She, Beaucham, and Kyle channel their past theatre experiences into their characters. Kyle transforms into a complex and analytical Thomas Jefferson or smart-alec grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, among others. Atlanta actors hit center stage, too.
 
Boiled ham, anyone?
The crew also gets cooking, both for online audiences and on-site Family Days. Walker’s pioneer dinner rolls toasted in a cast iron pot get done in time for web viewers to hunger for, but not savor. During Family Days at the center, hundreds of visitors drop in to see and sample early American culinary specialties, like ham boiled all day over an open fire.
 
Kyle planned to welcome visitors back inside the history center in late June and possibly stage a Family Day in August or September. He had expected to spend the shutdown polishing up exhibits, until the stay-at-home nation called.
 
Since then, the University of North Georgia history scholar and Blue Ridge, Ga. native has settled regularly behind his “Tears of My History Students” coffee mug in studio to tackle tricky questions like “Does the Boston Tea Party bear comparisons with protests of today?” or “Who discovered the first cave?” There’s no rehearsal for the 2 p.m. “Ask a Historian” livestreams during which Kyle calmly sifts the deep files of his brain to spin out sharp, mostly concise answers to occasionally huge questions.
 
Or, he might appear via livestream in a curly brown wig and colonial jacket as Alexander Hamilton or in Victorian formal wear with Walker, in a hoop skirt with bum pads, to hop, skip and jump a Victorian jig in a late 1880s ballroom, thanks to green screen technology.
 
Then there are podcasts, webisodes with a diverse cast of popsicle stick puppets, livestream readings of classic children’s literature … who has time to spiff up museum galleries?
 
Despite all the fun they have in studio, the center cast looked forward to the return of real-life visitors to see the flow of Northeast Georgia history in exhibits, artifacts and structures on-site. In the galleries, Lanier Meaders’s face jugs stare out to meet a visitor’s eyes, photos from the horrific 1936 tornado that stuck downtown Gainesville depict the destruction the town endured, and the Sports Hall of Fame chronicles athletes who’ve made Northeast Georgia proud.

On the grounds, the 18th century Chief Whitepath cabin, relocated to the history center in 1995, stands tribute to those who paddled Northeast Georgia rivers and walked the woods before “civilization” forced them out.
 
Cyber space opened a new frontier for the Northeast Georgia History Center during a trying time. The museum, and the personalities who bring it to life, stand testament to the region’s resourcefulness, diversity, and greatness.
 
  
History of the history center
 
From Executive Director Glen Kyle: Jim Mathis, Sr. (Hall County native instrumental in founding Gainesville College (now University of North Georgia’s Gainesville Campus) and the former Home Federal Savings & Loan, kept a display of historical relics in the atrium of the bank. He worked with the city to move his exhibit into the old Green Street fire station, creating the Georgia Mountains History Museum. An open house raised funds to seed the Northeast Georgia History Center, which opened on Brenau University property in 2004. Prior to that, Mathis helped arrange the removal of a vandalized Cherokee cabin from just north of Ellijay to the Gainesville site in 1995. The reconstructed cabin sits next to an old Gainesville blacksmith shop Mathis also had moved to the site. Many of the artifacts and photos were donated by area residents. Portions of the center bear names of prominent local donors and honorees. Although on the Brenau campus, the center is an independent non-profit entity, not owned by Brenau.
 
Lake Lanier Exhibits: The very shovel used in the groundbreaking ceremony of Buford Dam is affixed to the wall near the 1949 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers model of the massive project. Exhibits depict life along the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers before the lake flooded homes, farms, small towns and native American graves and artifacts. Displays also look at fish native to the lake and tributaries.
 
Other notable Exhibits: Face jugs and creations from Mossy Creek potters, such as Lanier Meaders, highlight the Frances Mathis and Phil Mathis Folk Art Gallery. An interactive tornado simulator and numerous photographs depict the 1936 tornado that devastated downtown Gainesville.
 
The Executive Director’s Favorites: Two items, one large and one just 36 inches, get Glen Kyle’s picks. “My favorite is the Chief Whitepath cabin … it takes you back to an early period in this region’s history,” said Kyle, whose childhood interest in history was likely sparked by the log cabin originally situated a few miles south of Blue Ridge, where he grew up. He’s also enamored with an artifact from the peak of an era that spawned stock car racing: a yardstick imprinted with “Don’t Drink Moonshine. If you want to report it contact Federal Agents in Atlanta,” plus a phone number.
 
July historical tidbit from Glen Kyle: Northeast Georgia Native Americans supported the British during the Revolutionary War because the redcoats prohibited settlement into their territory and profited from tribal trade. Folks in Georgia didn’t even know there was a revolution until August 1776. Newsprint traveled slow.
 
History Center Information: Planned re-opening was in late June. See website for hours and special programs, admission cost, web-based learning, livestreams and more, www.negahc.org. Info: historycenter@breanu.edu, 770-297-5900.


Posted online 6.26.20
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