Old Salem Museums & Gardens: Interpretive Plan

old salem composite

Old Salem Museums and Gardens (oldsalem.org) is situated in the eastern edge of the downtown district of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and is centrally located in Forsyth County. It is 19 miles from High Point, and 30 miles from Greensboro, which, together with Winston-Salem, comprise the major cities of the 10-county Piedmont Triad Metropolitan area, which has a population of 1.6 million. Forsyth County population as of 2014 is 365,298, up 4.2% since 2010. Children 18 years or younger comprise 23.7% of the county population, while 14.4% are age 65 or older. The median age is 35, slightly under the NC average. County population is 57.7% white, 27.1% black, and 12.6% Hispanic. Population in both the Forsyth County and Piedmont Triad Region is projected to increase by 14% in the next 15 years, with growth in minority sectors expected. Largest employers in Forsyth County are health care services, city/county government, manufacturing, financial services, and higher education. These numbers mirror regional statistics.

Components of Old Salem include the Historic Town of Salem with contemporary and reconstructed structures representing mid-1700 to mid-1800 architecture, and costumed staff demonstrating handicrafts and lifestyles of the time period. Also at Old Salem is the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), and the Gardens of Old Salem which are comprised of 11 separate outdoor areas. Old Salem has over 200 employees, most of which are part-time, and a substantial volunteer base. Other area museums include Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the New Winston Museum, the Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem, SciWorks Science Center and Environment Park, and the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University, but no institution locally or regionally compares to Old Salem and its focus on living history and historic immersion.

Ongoing internal needs of Old Salem focus on infrastructure, including the restoration of the Boys’ School, of the current Vierling House, and the addition of improvement to MESDA facilities. The beginning stages of a capital campaign are underway to address these issues. To sustain existing buildings, a portion of contributions will be earmarked to increase endowment funds for historic preservation. As many traditionally full-time jobs have shifted to part-time positions, it is also increasingly important to grow and maintain Old Salem’s pipeline of volunteers. To this end, leveraging current community networks and establishing new ones is crucial.

External factors of greatest concern are those affecting visitation. Old Salem relies on school groups for much of its visitation, attracting teachers and students from a 17-county region, including four southern counties of Virginia. Trends in field trips for school groups indicate a reduced amount of off-site travel by schools across all counties served and projections are not encouraging as schools continue to operate under financial constraints. Additionally, a shift in academic focus nationwide to prepare students for standardized testing requires schools to allocate their limited resources to these efforts and reduce field trips and other experiential learning. Recent collaboration with school systems to offset admission and/or travel costs for area schools has helped to boost school attendance temporarily, but an additional culture of collaboration is needed if school admissions are to be bolstered at a consistent level.

Propelled by increasing economic and technological trends, the North Carolina K-12 curriculum focus has shifted towards STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In response, Old Salem has reexamined its educational capabilities in STEM areas. Dependent on success of the capital campaign, the current Vierling House, named for Dr. Samuel Benjamin Vierling, will be renamed to The Doctor’s House and will focus on medicine and scientific exploration. Other ongoing efforts to increase visitation include new program offerings aimed at adults, as well as expansion of historic themes to accommodate minority points of view. To compensate for loss of admission receipts Old Salem has also increased marketing of facility rentals to community groups and private parties.

Old Salem is a rich historical resource for Moravian and Pennsylvania Dutch culture, as well as an insight into the home and lifestyles of people from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.  It is a well-loved tradition in Winston-Salem and the surrounding community and long-range sustainability is a paramount goal.  Through these interpretive strategies outlined above, Old Salem can maintain its place as a trusted historical resource for the community, and grow and change to meet established goals and to meet yet unnamed challenges successfully.

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