State Museum: 25 years, millions of memories

October 24, 2013 

Six employees and six volunteers have been with the S.C. State Museum since the day it opened. We asked them to reminisce

Six employees and six volunteers have been with the S.C. State Museum since the day it opened, several of them starting years before to help prepare the old Columbia Mills Building to become an historical showplace.

In honor of the musuem’s 25th anniversary, we asked them to reminisce.

1. What is your favorite exhibit or gallery in the museum?

Michael Fey, exhibits director: I had the pleasure of actually going into and helping collect items from the old Jenny Store. It was like walking into a time warp - we were told that the doors had been shut and locked in the 1930s - and everything was still on the shelves and around the cluttered room like the day it closed. We consequently tried to recreate that experience for our guests.

Michelle Baker, registrar: I think the country store is my favorite. When we moved into the mill, the country store was built from new material but all of the things inside actually came out of several stores in South Carolina. Winona Darr was the registrar at the time and I was her assistant, so our job was to arrange everything in the store. Talk about fun. We decided where everything went and set up the displays. It really has not changed much in 25 years, so I guess we did a pretty good job. I still like going in there, and because of my job, I’m one of the few people who gets to do that.

Russell Lowery, Master Craftsman (Carpenter): The Berry One-Room Schoolhouse is my favorite because there is so much of me in it. It was my first exhibit assignment. The original building was brought from Spartanburg County and parked in the museum back parking lot. I took the whole thing apart with some help from Jeff Sager, who was also hired when I was. I cleaned every single piece of wood, including the logs which framed the building. At the same time I made drawings showing how it all was put together. Once we built the schoolhouse inside the building (sadly without the original logs and outer siding), I personally reassembled the interior exactly as it originally was built. Note: the old burned spot on the floorboards is still there in the same place. Afterwards, I built all the benches. There are just a few boards around the fireplace, as well as the windows and casing that are not the original boards.

Dan Dowdy, graphics manager: The train dioramas; they were a blast to do as I got to be the historian, curator, model builder and operator.

Tut Underwood, public relations: My favorite exhibit has always been the country store. It reminds me of the country stores where my daddy used to take my sisters and me out in the country when I was growing up. We’d help him on a farm he had outside of town, or we’d go for rides in his Jeep, and we’d stop and get a candy bar and a soft drink out of a horizontal cooler (often Mountain Dew, which was new then). We also had a dry goods store in town that was just like stepping into 1930. You could buy overalls, groceries, ax handles and salt licks for deer or cattle, all in the same store. Much like the museum’s country store, only bigger. Walmart may have more merchandise these days, but it can’t compare for atmosphere and warmth.

Scottie Ash Nicholson, revenue manager: I love the Phillips Simons gate because the beautiful design has enabled and inspired me to do a lot of product development for new merchandise in the Cotton Mill Exchange.

Ouida Ott, volunteer: My absolute favorite area is the Native American gallery.

George McIntosh, volunteer: I like the science technology floor.

Linda Mittenzwei, volunteer: Anything history but especially the mastodon and the glyptodont on the second floor.

Jeanne Craig, volunteer: I like the habitats area where I can walk the entire State from the mountains to the sea.

Jan Shackelford, volunteer: I love how all the symbols of South Carolina are on view throughout the museum.

Jack Meyer, volunteer: The Military History exhibit is my favorite. There are a lot of neat things on display.

2. What is it about the museum that has kept you involved for 25 years?

Michael Fey, exhibits director: I have been with the museum for over 30 years (I was here for five years before we opened), and it is great to have “one's hobby as their job” and actually doing “mind over matter” by creating things that are three dimensional and two dimensional.

Michelle Baker, registrar: For sure it’s the people that I have had a chance to work with at the museum. I have made lifelong friends working here that have been and continue to be leaders in their area of expertise, committed to the museum and always supportive of me. Every day is an adventure because you just never know what artifacts are going to come in on any given day. And, I get to wear blue jeans every day. That has been great!

Russell Lowery, master craftsman (carpenter): Actually, I’ve been at the museum 28 years and two months (since August, 1985). I suppose what has kept me here is that this has been an interesting job to have, not to mention working with great people. Although I’m certainly ready to retire, I must say it has been quite a journey, and I am proud to still see work that I did on permanent display.

Dan Dowdy, graphics manager: The variety of what needed to be done on any given day - I would be a graphics person, designer, welder, carpenter, curator, conservator, troubleshooter or docent. Also, the people and staff have kept me here.

Tut Underwood, public relations: The chance to represent something that is positive, that is educational and uplifting and that everyone can enjoy and take pride in. There are no downsides to the museum when you’re talking about its impact on the state. Also, the talented and dedicated staff members, who sometimes amaze me with their skills and knowledge. Plus, I constantly learn more about the state and the world with every exhibit that we produce or bring in to the museum. This kind of intellectual stimulation is priceless.

Scottie Ash Nicholson, revenue manager: I enjoy that the museum’s exhibits are constantly changing. This change allows me to be creative when purchasing for the museum store because there is always something new to work with that relates to our current exhibits. I also enjoy the great relationships and networks that I have formed with other museums across the country. We are always sharing ideas and resources.

Ouida Ott, volunteer: The people including the staff, fellow volunteers and museum guests.

George McIntosh, volunteer: The learning experience. Learning more about South Carolina and learning about the people who come to the museum. It is especially rewarding to be with children and learning about what they want to see at the museum.

Linda Mittenzwei, volunteer: It’s a welcoming place to go. There are always new things to see, and I love the visitors, especially out-of-state folks who want to learn more about South Carolina. I got to watch the museum grow from nothing to what it is today, and I am anxious to see the new additions this spring!

Jeanne Craig, volunteer: The opportunity to serve as an educator and seeing that “light bulb” go on in children’s eyes when you know you have captured their interest.

Jan Shackelford, volunteer: It gives me a chance to learn something new every day.

Jack Meyer, volunteer: My deep interest in history and a deep feeling that South Carolina has to have a first-class museum.

3. What is the most unusual thing that has happened to you in the museum?

Michael Fey, exhibits director: Rearranging Port-o-Lets in the parking lot by pushing and sliding them on the pavement for the 20th anniversary. After more than 20 years with the museum, I was actually amused that my job had “culminated” to doing such “unusual duties.” Also, hearing “Bubba the ghost” bang away for more than 10 minutes, wondering what to do with the white gloves covered in a light grey dust from installing the astronaut suit worn on the moon by General Duke and having the museum's muralist, Kent Pendleton, ask me if it was OK that he painted one of his signature leprechauns in all of his diorama murals (I thought it was a great added touch).

Michelle Baker, registrar: One time I went with our history curator, Rodger Stroup, to look at a possible donation. One of the items was a cooling board for a child (when people died, they were often placed on cooling boards for viewing before burial). As we were leaving one of the donors told us that she remembered, as a child, that when the cooling board wasn’t being used for its official purpose, they would use it as an extra bed when friends came over. I thought that was unusual and a little creepy.

Russell Lowery, master craftsman (carpenter): An unusual thing that happened to me inside the museum came before we originally opened in 1988. I was working very late one night, sometime just before midnight. I was alone on the fourth floor building the fence around the Funeral and Mourning exhibit. Suddenly, I heard a loud rattling noise that seemed to be at the wall near me. It startled me. I thought it odd that I just happened to be in the Funeral and Mourning exhibit. Had I been any other place it might not have seemed so creepy, but it did kind of make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Apparently, it was the pipes rattling, but considering the time of night and my location, it was a bit scary. I think this was before we ever began talking about a ghost in the museum.

Dan Dowdy, graphics manager: Being here 27 years, it’s really hard to say as every day seems to be unusual, and that’s what I like.

Tut Underwood, public relations: The weirdest thing that ever happened to me was when we brought in the first auto produced by the new BMW plant in Greer. It was to be on long-term display, and was a special blue with white interior that closely mirrored the museum’s official colors. The floor mats even had an imprint of the state on them. It was a beauty. The car arrived in a tractor trailer, and the driver began backing it down the ramp into our large freight elevator at the back of the museum. We had told BMW that automobiles in museums must be drained of all liquids so they neither leak nor solidify while on long-term display. The company dutifully put only enough gasoline in it to get it off the truck, and also drained the oil, transmission fluid and other fluids. Unfortunately, it failed to tell the driver that the car also had no brake fluid, so when he rolled it onto the ramp leading off the truck, it picked up speed and he couldn’t stop it. He didn’t have time to react and grab the hand brake, so it crashed into the back of the steel elevator, denting it all up. To make matters worse, I had arranged to have four television cameras pointed right at it to record this significant event, so it was quite embarrassing. We can smile about it two decades later, but it sure wasn’t funny that day. (The car was taken back to Greer, repaired and returned to us for exhibit.)

Scottie Ash Nicholson, revenue manager: I am amazed at how the palmetto tree has grown in popularity since I started at the museum 25 years ago. When we first opened our doors, the palmetto tree was hardly on anything but the actual flag. Now the palmetto tree is an integral theme in our store, as well as across the state and beyond.

Ouida Ott, volunteer: Our tours were interrupted one day for a tornado drill.

George McIntosh, volunteer: I was giving a talk about the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel and one guest contradicted every statement I made. Finally we met up after the tour, and he told me he was the correct because he was the “real” discoverer of the Hunley. You get every type of guest at the State Museum.

Linda Mittenzwei, volunteer: A couple from Michigan turned down my offer to take them on a tour of the museum, but 10 minutes later, after they saw how large the museum was, they asked if I was still available to give them a tour. I was, and we had a great time.

Jeanne Craig, volunteer: There was a group in our NASA gallery looking at an exhibit about South Carolina astronaut, Charles Bolden. It just so happened that I was giving a tour to his mother, Mrs. Bolden. So I took her over and introduced her to the museum guests. They were thrilled to meet the mother of a South Carolina astronaut.

Jan Shackelford, volunteer: I was asking students questions during one museum lesson and one fourth-grade student proceeded to go into intricate detail about Fort Moultrie. I asked his teacher if it was OK for him to come up and teach the class, and he did. He did a great job, too.

Jack Meyer, volunteer: Many years ago, a museum guest asked my opinion about a sword. It was obviously a Japanese saber and not a Confederate sword that the guest claimed it to be. The guest would not believe me, but later, he came back to apologize when he found Japanese characters on the blade.

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