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The Durham History Hub focuses on stories over artifacts

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It's a typical July afternoon in Durham. Cumulus tufts pile up in a corner of the sky, massing into a swollen, graying front. I pull into the parking space closest to the Downtown Loop on West Main Street.

I'm a shout away from the empty gazebo and squat brick-and-glass building that used to be the city bus station before it moved to shiny new digs a couple blocks away on Pettigrew Street, where the haunted hulk of the Heart of Durham hotel used to be.

Live in a town long enough—this is year 17 for me—and these ghosts accumulate in the cityscape like the clouds forming a summer thunderstorm. So many of the buildings along the downtown corridor here used to be something else just a few years ago. What was that lunch place right there that had the good fried fish, before it became Joe & Jo's pub, before that became Bull McCabes?

Civic memory is why I'm meeting Katie Spencer and Cindy Gardiner in this old bus station. They're the co-directors of the Museum of Durham History, which enters the city's brick-and-mortar ranks this Friday night when the Durham History Hub throws itself a baby shower in the old bus depot. (Last week, Spencer, who previously worked at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, was named executive director.)

Their open-house party offers Durhamites a sneak peek at what the Hub will be when it opens sometime next year. Mock-ups of exhibit concepts and designs, developed in conjunction with Raleigh-based Design Dimension, will be on display. The now-requisite local beer and food trucks will be on hand. Musicians will shoo the mockingbirds from the gazebo to perform there for the evening.

"We definitely want to fling the doors wide open and have everybody come in and take a look," Spencer says. "We're going to have a preliminary set of renderings and we're going to have Post-it note feedback opportunities on the renderings where you can tell us what you like and what you'd change."

Community input might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you hear "history museum." You more likely envision yellowing portraits and glass cases of labeled artifacts. But don't start hauling treasures down from the attic to donate. For the foreseeable future, the History Hub will be a noncollecting operation.

From a practical standpoint, the 1,500-square-foot building can't accommodate a collection. The more important reason, however, speaks to the museum's documentary vision. The board and staff see history as being about people, not stuff.

That's not to say stuff isn't coming their way practically every day. Gardiner recently fielded an offer of two vintage Durham Fire Department fire trucks. "One's from around 1900 and one's from the 1920s. The first one is a boiler pulled by horses. And they're both in good shape," she says with a smile. Each one is about as big as the Hub building itself, however.

"Along with these fire trucks come countless stories, ones that don't necessarily get told very often or have a home," Spencer says. "So even just to be able to show a video of these and to have some oral histories of old firefighters in Durham, you can really get at those stories even though we can't put a fire truck in here."

It won't all be multimedia, though. After the open house, the Hub will hold periodic "pop-up" events. The museum will pick a theme, open the doors, and Durhamites can bring their relevant stuff to the Hub to share, like a huge community show-and-tell session.

"It could be a thing or a picture. It might be a family heirloom, one that fits with the theme. It's a way for Durham to share its stories," Gardiner says. "And at the end of the day, the museum disappears. People take their stuff and go home."

Themes could be as general as "Durham at Play" or timely in some way, like a baseball theme in conjunction with the Gildan Triple-A Baseball National Championship game that the Durham Bulls Athletic Park will host this fall.

"We want to be a place to get people engaged, to pique their curiosity and to send them off to do further exploration," Gardiner says. After the museum's incorporation in 2009, the co-directors built early partnerships with the Durham County Library's North Carolina Collection as well as Gary Kueber, the "Endangered Durham" and "Open Durham" history blogger extraordinaire. Other linkages have grown with the Heritage Alliance, a loose association of history-related organizations, the Durham Arts Council and other local museums.

"All of these different groups realized the need for a central clearinghouse, a way to point people in other directions. A way to get the big picture and go elsewhere for details to really delve into something," Gardiner says.

She and Spencer hope that the open-house event accelerates fundraising efforts. The museum has about a third of the estimated $175,000 needed to open the Hub, which includes upfits and renovations to the building and the design and fabrication of exhibits. Annual operating expenses are figured at $132,000. Applications for grants totaling more than $100,000 are pending.

Once the Hub opens fully, it will feature a Story Corner—booths patterned after the StoryCorps project in which visitors tell their stories into a microphone. A kid's area with historically themed imaginative playthings is also planned, as well as interactive touchscreens to explore multimedia archives and maps.

Bigger ideas are on the horizon, such as the possibility of a larger museum building and "mobile museums," which are buses converted into roaming exhibit rooms and classrooms. But opening the History Hub is the first step.

"We hope that we outgrow this, but we're not too focused on that yet," Spencer says.

In the meantime, she loves how perfectly the Hub's location jives with the museum's mission. "We've got tobacco warehouses over there. You can hear the train as it goes by. You've got new downtown Durham over here," she says, pointing out her subjects through the Hub's floor-to-ceiling windows. "These are all reminders of Durham's history. It's pretty inspiring."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Local history, in your voice."

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