Escaping the Colonial period for Wilmington
March 20, 2009By Woody Westlake
Do you know the location of the oldest public history collection in the state of North Carolina? If you said Wilmington, you were right. It’s located downtown at 814 Market Street, and it’s called the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science. And do you know when it was founded? If you said 1898, you were right again. And do you know who runs it? If you said Ruth Haas, you’re now batting
Founded in 1898 by the ladies of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who wanted to preserve the relics of the Civil War, the museum was first located in a library and later in a jail. “There have been all sorts of interesting places where the museum has been located,” says Haas. “The science museum in Raleigh is older, so we can’t say we’re the oldest museum, but we are the oldest public history collection. We are also the only museum in southeastern North Carolina accredited by the American Association of Museums.”
By virtue of education and experience, Ruth Haas is well-qualified to head the Cape Fear Museum. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Education (Social Studies) from the University of Kansas, a Master of Science degree in Education (Curriculum and Instruction) from the University of Wisconsin and Professional Certification in Museum Studies from New York University.
She began her career as a teacher, including two years teaching in the West Indies as a Peace Corps volunteer. Her first museum position was as educational coordinator at the Queens County Farm Museum in New York City. When her husband, an attorney and career military officer, was transferred to Maryland, she joined the staff of Historic Annapolis, where she was an assistant in the business office.
When Haas’ husband retired from the military, they fulfilled a long-term goal to move to historic Williamsburg, Va. In 1987, Haas joined the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Williamsburg, where she would remain in various capacities until 2001. And, as she said, “my career took off there.”
She began as supervisor of education. From there, she became the Jamestown program interpretive manager. In 1994, she was appointed acting director of the Jamestown Settlement. And in 1997, she became museum educational services director, in which capacity she was ble for a $2.3 million annual budget, a staff of 50 full-time and 200 part-time and volunteer members and public programs at two museum sites serving more than 800,000 visitors annually.
“I could easily have stayed there and retired, but I really wanted to be in the situation at some point in my career where I could say that I was the director of the museum,” said Haas. “So I started looking, and this job was open [director of the Cape Fear Museum]. Several of my friends told me about it, and I ended up here starting in April, 2001.
“It has been a fulfilling career step for me,” she said. “And the other thing I liked about coming to this museum is that it is a community museum. Every good museum has a mission, and at Jamestown-Yorktown, I was really getting tired of living in the colonial period. Coming to Wilmington was a chance to deal with modern issues and engage the community in some important ways, and that has proven to be the case.”
Operating the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science is an expensive undertaking. Haas says that her annual budget is about $1,700,000. The museum is a department of New Hanover County, and its primary funding comes from the county. The county provides various support services for which the museum would otherwise have to pay, like property management and utilities.
The museum is also eligible to apply for grants at the state and federal level. For example, it has been receiving about $160,000 a year from the Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative, which Haas said has helped the museum have a stronger science component.
It also recently received a federal Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant for $150,000 that will help with the next long-term exhibit installation which will open in April 2010. To run the museum’s various departments and functions, Haas has a full-time staff of 14, a part-time staff of 12 and 125 volunteers. In 2008, the museum had 38,000 visitors; 40,000 visitors are predicted for 2009.
Has the current economic climate had an effect on the museum? “Oh yes,” says Haas. “We’re a department of the county, and all you have to do is read the headlines. Like all county departments, we have had to reduce our budget, and we eliminated one full-time position in January via retirement.”
Regarding 2009 and beyond she says, “So far this year we have been fortunate, and I don’t feel that we have had to impact any of our programming. I haven’t heard the final numbers yet for 2010, but I anticipate further reductions. I anticipate reductions in the funding we receive from the state for the same reason.”
Looking further ahead, Haas cautions that she is “more concerned about what happens in 2011, because basically what we are doing is using our reserves to accomplish the goals that we have. Unless we see some sunshine on the economic front, 2011 could be a slim year for us.”
Haas does say, however, that a grant and other funding from such corporate supporters as G.E., Corning, PPD, Progress Energy and Oleander Corporation will allow the museum to continue most of its planned activities.
Upcoming events include: “History Day,” a competition for area students, on March 31; a new exhibit opening in April; and in May two traveling exhibits: “Toy Time” and “Ancient Carolinians.”
The talent and resourcefulness of the museum’s staff was reflected in a recent survey of visitors. Ruth Haas reports that, despite the recent cutbacks, nearly 100 percent of respondents rated their experience at the museum as “very good” or “excellent.”