Written by Jim Murphy
From mermaids, monkeys, and Marilyn; to pinball perfectionists, radio revelers, and feline fetishists-if there’s an object of affection out there, somebody has definitely erected a public shrine to it.
From kayaking and rafting to mountain biking and hiking, Western North Carolina enjoys a wealth of adventures in our great outdoors—over the years this magazine has extensively covered such joys and much more. But those in the know understand there is an equally abundant variety of attractions confined to our great indoors. Our mountain area boasts a wealth of museums that cover topics ranging from chocolate to college, from graffiti to cats. And when cabin fever strikes, or simply an urge to wander through rooms filled with unique visuals not automatically available via computer screen, an excursion to one of the area’s many museums can provide a reliable escape and feed the imagination.
“You Gotta Hit The Flipper”
One of the most popular museums in our region stretches the museum concept to its audio/visual limit: The Asheville Pinball Museum, which might properly add, “and Game Room” to its title. The venue is usually crowded to capacity with players of all ages testing their pinball skills with flippers and body English to run up astronomical scores while avoiding the fatal “Tilt.”
Visitors don’t have to bring a pocket full of quarters. Entrance is free for those who want to treat the place as a classic museum—look all you want, but don’t touch—and the price to play is $15 for unlimited games on the 40 pinball machines and classic video games. The room regularly reaches its fire-department capacity, especially on weekends. At those times, only paying players are admitted.
On a recent blustery Saturday, a line of parents and children fought off a nasty wind waiting for the doors to open. For Debby Alphin of Asheville, it was a family affair. She was there with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. “This is the number-one attraction,” she said. “We tried yesterday and didn’t realize how crowded it would be. There was a three-hour wait, so we’re back here this morning.”
T.C. DiBella, the creator of the museum, suggests that anyone who simply wants to see the machines should come on a weekday when the place is less likely to be filled to capacity. The museum is so popular that, last year, DiBella opened a second location in Hendersonville.
The machines themselves present dazzling displays of circus-like graphics with names like Cyclone, Batman, Spiderman, Star Wars, and the Bally Wizard. With lights flashing, bells ringing, and flippers pounding, the room is a far cry from anyone’s idea of a quiet, stately place where you tip-toe around admiring old art and speaking in hushed tones. The players quickly lose themselves in the spectacle. At one machine a father and his four-year-old son were engrossed with the careening ball, which fell unmolested out of play. “You gotta hit the flipper,” Dad said, with a grin. His son, more familiar with video games than these old-fashioned pinball contraptions, pulled the trigger for another ball and held his hands ready on the flipper buttons.
A separate room offers more friendly diversions for the younger set: classic video games. DiBella explains that the video game phenomenon is so new, a “classic” is anything made before 1990. Here, players can exercise their reflexes with such oldies as Pac-Man, Centipede, and Donkey Kong.
DiBella developed his interest in pinball only a few years ago when he bought a machine “as a birthday present to myself.” As his interest grew, he eventually acquired two more machines. His breakthrough came soon after. “I had a party at my house, and everyone was fascinated with them,” he says. “And one of my guests sent me a link to the Seattle pinball museum, and a light went off, and I said, ‘If you put that in Asheville, it would be huge.’ And then I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I put one in Asheville?’ That was back in 2013.”
Once it opened, the museum quickly took off—to the surprise of DiBella. “I had no idea it would be this successful,” he says. He quit his job teaching middle school science and turned himself into a pinball entrepreneur. Pinball has become an all-consuming career, and for his own enjoyment, it has grown from a pastime to a passion. “Whenever we get a new machine, we keep in the back for awhile so I can play it.” (The Pinball Museum was also featured in the March 2017 issue of this magazine: “Ready Player One”.)
Raise A Toast To Bucky Fuller
A more conventional—if no less inspiring—museum experience awaits on College Street in downtown Asheville. Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center is dedicated to an institution that existed for only 24 years, but represented a Camelot moment of 20th Century arts and imagination.
A roster of teachers and students who populated Black Mountain College during its heyday reads like a Who’s-Who of American creativity: Merce Cunningham (choreographer), John Cage (composer), Robert Rauschenberg and Ben Shahn (artists), Arthur Penn (film director), Buckminster Fuller (architect)—to name just a few of the notables who gathered in nearby Black Mountain to stretch the boundaries of their creativity while teaching a curriculum that centered on the arts.
The college was born during the Great Depression in 1933. It continued throughout World War II and into the McCarthy era. It finally closed its doors when funding dried up in 1957. It was by no means a standard four-year institution offering degrees in the usual academic specialties. The curriculum had no course requirements, no grades—and no degrees. Students decided when they would graduate and receive a purely ceremonial diploma to acknowledge their “graduation.”
Within its malleable structure, though, the college promoted fresh thought and avant-garde experimentation. It was on the Black Mountain campus that Buckminster Fuller created his first large-scale geodesic dome and Merce Cunningham formed the company that would go on to essentially define modern dance. It also coined the term “Happening” as a noun. Beginning in 1952, John Cage produced theatrical events at the college, combining music, film, poetry, and whatever other elements Cage cared to include. He called his productions “musical happenings,” launching a term that grew into vogue several decades later.
During its short life, the college had such an impact on arts in America that the museum would eventually be created to recognize the history of the college with art exhibitions, publications, and educational programs. Community engagement manager Kate Averett explains the origin of the museum, saying, “In 1993, an advocate of the college, Mary Holden, founded the museum to celebrate the history of Black Mountain College as a forerunner in progressive interdisciplinary education. She continues to be involved via long distance because she now lives in Paris.” Averett adds that much like the college, the museum’s goal “is to provide a gathering point for people from a variety of backgrounds to interact through art and ideas.”
Over its 25-year span, the museum has hosted more than 200,000 visitors. Last year it moved to a new, more expansive location at 120 College St. in Asheville.
In addition to its continuing exhibits about the college, the museum’s current exhibition features the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, who taught at the college in 1946. Lawrence is a well-known African-American painter who specialized in depicting African-American life. His paintings hang in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The Lawrence exhibit runs through January 12.)
And beginning in February, a featured exhibit will explore the politics of Black Mountain College. Against a tumultuous political background, the college drew scrutiny and controversy as an incubator of unconventional ideas. The multimedia exhibit will include FBI files and other documents.
Count Chocula Would Approve
From the artistic pursuits of an experimental college, our museum tour takes a sharp turn to the gastronomic pleasures of—chocolate.
The French Broad Chocolate Company, recently profiled in the pages of this very magazine (“Like A Box of Chocolates,” March 2018), have opened their new factory on Riverside Drive which incorporates a three-faceted museum experience. Owners Daniel and Jael Rattigan wanted a space that could not only produce their products, but could also educate visitors to the story of chocolate.
According to Jael, the first phase of the experience is production of the confections: “People can walk through and learn about the different pieces of equipment and see the chocolate being made in front of their eyes. That’s why we have all those big windows looking into the production area and signage telling the people what the machines are doing.”
Beyond production is a display of vintage documents and illustrations dating back to 1750 explaining the history of chocolate. The display continues into the present, showing French Broad’s connection to its cacao growers in Central America. And tours include a classroom presentation explaining the process from cacao plant to finished product.
The historic documents are on loan from a collector, and Jael says they plan to change them every six months or so. As for the concept of marrying their production facility to an educational experience, “We have grown to see our marketing as storytelling,” she says. “The idea of creating a space that was experiential and educational was in the plan since we conceived of this facility.”
The original French Broad Chocolate Lounge opened in downtown Asheville in 2008, and Jael says their success has been “beyond our wildest dreams. For sure. The dream has been evolving for 12 years.”
Radio Could Still Kill The Video Star
The radio has been evolving for about ten times that long. And the Asheville Radio Museum has been tracking that evolution since 2001. The museum fills a small room on the A-B Tech Asheville campus, with floor-to-ceiling shelves of radios, both broadcast and ham, along with tubes, an early phonograph, a working Morse code key, framed paintings, news clippings, prints, cartoons, and assorted paraphernalia.
During our visit, museum President Steve Carter cranked up a 1902 Edison Standard Phonograph, with a large horn speaker. He pointed out that there was no electricity involved in producing the sound, which came out of the horn as a raspy, scratchy vocal arrangement of a song called, “Everybody Wiggle Waggle.”
One of the displays is a variety of radio tubes, which Carter said often confuse people. “Sometimes we ask visitors, ‘What are these?’ And people under 40 don’t know. They answer, ‘Light bulbs?’” The tubes seem to be historic anomalies, but Steve says they are still manufactured in Europe and Asia. And, although they can be hard to find in this solid-state age, “There’s a place in New York that has a huge stock of old tubes. It’s a warehouse with racks up to the ceiling with nothing but tubes.” And the museum actually has its own stash of the aging rarities. “We have boxes of old tubes,” he noted, to replace ones that wear out.
Nowadays, museums tend to focus on what’s new and what’s still to come. But Carter said the radio museum is trying to cross that bridge. “All of us really like this old stuff, and we think there’s quite a bit of value in maintaining the history. At the same time, we have some of the latest technology to demonstrate what radio waves look like. So, we can show people the science of it.”
Many of the “old stuff” exhibits feature familiar brand names, such as Zenith, Bendix, or Edison, but one bulky model on display draws particular attention. Showing no fewer than five dials across the front of a black case, Carter identified it as a Neutrodyne Broadcast Radio Receiver dating from the 1920s—it had been a popular model in rural areas because it could receive stations from cities as far away as Boston or Dallas.
Ed. Note: The museum is closed in January except by special request.
Stretching the definition of “museum” allows us to visit an outdoor array of art and graffiti on Riverside Drive in the Asheville arts district. The display is an outgrowth of a project that celebrated local muralist Ian Wilkinson developed several years ago. He had a contract to remove graffiti from a downtown building, and after the offensive tags were covered up, he invited graffiti artists to work on the same wall. He then wrote a contract with the city saying the tags comprised a sanctioned mural and it was no longer simply graffiti. “We made a graffiti production where artists could work in broad daylight and spend time on it to make it really good.”
That eventually led to a project on the Asheville wastepaper warehouse in the River Arts District. “We used 60 artists—half of them graffiti writers, some muralists and some street artists,” notes Wilkinson, proudly. “Their wall was 22 thousand square feet. We divided it into sections and set them loose. Everyone was elated to be working on the wall together.”
Along with murals and graffiti in other parts of the district, the Riverside display juxtaposes primitive, untrained talent with sophisticated artwork. The project turns old industrial walls into public art, and it gives real meaning to the term “graffiti artist.”
On a chilly winter day, the best way to visit the graffiti and murals is from the cozy confines of your car.
Cruisin’ To The Oldies
And as long as you’re already in the car, cruise over to Grove Park, where you can check out some cars that are, well, museum pieces. Literally. The Antique Car Museum, located in Grovewood Village behind the Grove Park Inn, features 20 classic cars and four horse-drawn vehicles, from a 1913 Ford Model T to a ’59 Edsel. Each of the vehicles is not only a perfect example of automotive design in its era, it is also a revealing glimpse into that moment in history when the car first hit the road.
Examples to notice:
— The 1950 MG TD has leather straps to buckle down the hood.
— The 1915 Model T Ford has a crank starter hanging beneath the radiator grill.
— The 1916 Willys Overland Touring car has wood spoke wheels.
— The 1926 Cadillac limousine has a back-seat phone for the passenger to speak to the chauffeur. Back in ’26, before the market crash, the limo sold for $4,566.
— The 1957 Cadillac Brougham was custom-made. Between ’57 and ’60, only 904 vehicles were produced. The Brougham had a stainless-steel roof and sold for $13,500. Nowadays, it is valued at around $200,000.
Museum manager Tom Anders says they logged 26,000 visitors last year. And the question he hears most often? “Is the “1957 Caddy for sale?” He politely declines to sell it—even for 200K. He says the museum was established in 1966 by Harry Blomberg, an early Asheville Cadillac dealer. The cars were all part of his private collection. The museum is free, but they do accept donations.
On this day, visitors snap pictures and talk about their own car experiences. Rose Pearson of Atlanta and her son, Lyndon, were fascinated by the Model T Ford. “It’s amazing,” she said. “Because our granddaddy had an old T model, and I was telling him about the night he tried to crank it and it wouldn’t start.” Lyndon agrees that the museum was “amazing,” adding, “I think I want at least one of them.”
Anita Hawkey of Greensboro said, “I love it. My husband especially loves it.” Does she drive an old classic? “I have an 18-year old Toyota.” Not quite a classic, but if she could pick one from the museum? “I love that little one up front, the MG.” In response to the same question, her husband, Gary, scanned the room and shook his head. “It would be hard to pick,” he said.
Ed. Note: The Antique Car Museum is closed for the winter, but it will reopen in April. Make sure you inquire about the museum’s status among area ghost-hunters when you do visit, incidentally.
Back in your non-classic car, you can point yourself westward, taking I-40 to the town of Cherokee, where the Museum of the Cherokee Indian illustrates 13,000 years of tribal history.
To many outsiders, the name Cherokee brings up the “trail of tears” relocation from the tribe’s North Carolina home to the Oklahoma territory in 1838. But the museum reveals much more, going back thousands of years before and two-hundred years after the relocation.
During a recent tour, Bo Taylor, executive director, points out early hunting weapons in the collection, dating from centuries before the bow and arrow. He walks through the pre-history exhibits to the Mississippian period, when “agriculture really starts to grow.” The advancement of agriculture allowed the tribes to settle in particular areas rather than continue moving in search of food.
This period, beginning around 3500 BC, also saw the rise of the mound culture. As part of their settlements the tribes would build mounds as much as 100 feet tall to serve as temples, burial places, and other ceremonial functions. “The mound culture extends all the way from meso-America to the Ohio Valley,” says Taylor. “And we were right in the middle of things.”
The mound era “was kind of the epitome of our culture, setting the stage for the next part …” He is talking as he moves on to the next display: “…which was contact.”
Contact. The arrival of European explorers marked a radical turn in the Cherokee culture and fortunes. Taylor points to a display of Indians meeting white settlers. “Smallpox killed more Indians than any guns,” he says, as he moves on through the recent centuries of the tribe’s history.
The museum opened in 1952 in a small log cabin, and since then it has expanded to a spacious multimedia exhibit hall that hosts more than 80,000 visitors each year. In a capsule of both the tribe’s history and the museum’s mission, Bo Taylor sums up: “To me the museum is kind of a testimony of our resilience. We’re doing the best to tell our story. We’re still here and we still have a story to tell.”
“Like Little Children In Fur Coats”:
A Purr-fect Finale
The Cherokee story falls into the category of history, but our next stop inhabits a far different category: Call it fantasy.
Occupying two rooms in an antique mall in the town
of Sylva is the American Museum of… wait for it…the
Museum founder Dr. Harold Sims presents highlights from his 30-year collection of feline imagery in a cat-ucopia of rare and unusual items. He estimates there are between 6,000 and 7,000 items on display, and he plans to move to a larger building to accommodate all the other pieces that he can’t fit in his current space. But even in these crammed quarters, there is plenty to see.
Covering the walls are cat drawings, engravings, paintings, and prints—some signed by the legendary likes of Pablo Picasso, Peter Max, and Andy Warhol. A maze of glass-front display shelves holds a selection of cat teapots, cat salt-and-pepper shakers, cat andirons, a cat boot scraper, and cat music boxes.
“People come in here, they’re blown away with what they see,” he says. “They can’t believe it’s been done.” The little Sylva exhibit, it turns out, is one of nine worldwide museums dedicated to the cat. And it contains some specialty items that are, indeed, museum quality.
A full-size carousel cat dating to 1923 comes from the company established by master carver Gustav Dentzel. It is the centerpiece of a major display that includes a remote-controlled alley cat rising from inside a trash can.
An Egyptian cat amulet dates back to 1000 BC, while a litter of kitty automatons is far more recent, dating only to the 1800s.
Fenton glass cats, Steiff plush cats, plastic cats, wood cats, tin cats, cat clocks, cat music boxes—if an object can be rendered in cat form, chances are it’s here. The museum even has a pinball machine named “Bad Cats.”
Dr. Sims takes his fondness for cats back to his youth and the farm cats that kept the family chicken barn free of mice and rats. His recollections ramble through a series of cats in his adult life: Buzzie, Marco, Sookie, and a few others, until he reaches his present brood of seven house cats—plus another 80 he cares for in a no-kill shelter that he established in 1996. “Over the past 12 years we have placed more than 3,000 cats [with adoptive families[,” he says.
But a cat museum is a long way from a no-kill shelter. What inspired Dr. Sims to begin collecting and then to open his exhibition space?
“I got started collecting when I bought a cat calendar for $10,” he says. “And I always liked museums as a kid, so I thought I’d like to have a cat museum.”
His philosophy of cats is summed up in a carved wood sign that hangs on a wall:
Cats are like little children in fur coats.
The word “museum” carries the connotation of quiet spaces where venerable old items are on display for appreciative patrons. But going back at least as far as the 1840s, when PT Barnum opened his American Museum, the exhibits have ranged from the unrestrained to the downright rowdy. Barnum promoted Siamese twins, dancing bears, and the Feejee mermaid, a monkey’s body with a fish tail. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum followed with exhibits such as shrunken heads and two-headed animals. And Madame Tussauds Wax Museum features lifelike and life-size wax sculptures of everyone from ET to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis.
Our museums in Western North Carolina take up the challenge offering both educational and recreational venues for whatever your taste, whatever your interest. And they can be great escapes on cold, rainy days.
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