This collaborative exhibit focused on Warnersville, the first planned African American community in Greensboro, NC. The project had three primary goals: to engage the African American community and build a relationship of mutual trust and respect within Warnersville; to support the growth of an underrepresented collection/research area; and to develop a more inclusive model for exhibit planning. The Warnersville exhibit was the most visible achievement of this collaboration – an exhibition in which the community took great pride, in part because they drove the form and content from the beginning. Strong positive responses to the exhibit resulted in many repeat visits and attendance figures that exceeded expectations.
For more than two years GHM solicited active participation from Warnersville members through Community Conversations, a program where staff brought photographs and maps into community places – churches, school, festivals and the recreation center. The year before the exhibit opened, museum staff and community members met monthly as an Exhibit Advisory Committee to define the larger questions the exhibition would raise and to discuss strategies for identifying resources.
The Big Idea that the committee developed was that Warnersville’s history is more than a record of buildings and a map of the landscape – it is the stories, voices and memories of a place that endures. An important objective was to share with the general public the stories that community members hold dear, especially those that explain its proud and deep history. It was also vital to demonstrate how leadership in a community can take many forms, and the exhibit aimed to inspire and celebrate the Warnersville legacy and accomplishments of its community members.
This project impacted the community in numerous ways. Through a partnership with David Jones Elementary School, not only was student work included in the exhibit, but new ways of interacting with teachers and students over the course of multiple years were developed. Multi-generational groups of African American visitors came often to the exhibit, experiencing through tears and laughter the warmth of family and community recognition in a museum they had not always felt was theirs. Comments, articles and letters show this feeling has changed. GHM can now tell a part of Greensboro’s history that was underrepresented, further legitimizing the role of oral and video stories as history. One community member is now on the GHM Board of Trustees, and since the exhibition closed, the Advisory Committee has met to discuss how exhibition materials, including digital content, can have an ongoing presence in community institutions.
The proudest impact is that the Greensboro City Council designated Warnersville as Greensboro’s first Heritage Community in summer 2015—an area historically significant that does not meet criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places or a local Historic District designation because of physical changes over time. Museum staff worked closely with the community to prepare the nomination that passed unanimously.
Warnersville: Our Home, Our Neighborhood, Our Stories embodies the GHM mission by creating dialogue within and across community boundaries and linking generations, while sharing history, feelings and memories of a neighborhood with a unique and traumatic history, yet fierce pride. This project was conceived as a way to participate with the Warnersville neighborhood, gather and preserve an under-served community’s history while challenging the museum by breaking from normal practice for exhibit development. The community led the way for this exhibit, and the building of community relationships was the greatest outcome of all.