Greenville Museums: Blending History, Learning and Fun

By:Bob Gillespie

Date:12/2/2015

For too many families, the notion of spending vacation time visiting museums evokes visions of dusty hallways and “Quiet Please” signs. Not in Greenville, South Carolina, though.

Whether it’s adults viewing exhibits about textile mills, the area’s settlement and the state’s civil rights movement (with oral history provided by Greenville native and two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson) at the Upcountry History Museum, or youngsters having fun with interactive exhibits that also serve as learning tools in The Children’s Museum of the Upstate, Greenville’s vibrant museum scene is about making learning come alive.

Visiting museums in Greenville is also convenient; the Upcountry History Museum, the Children’s Museum and Carolina Music Museum are located on Greenville’s Heritage Green. Also convenient to downtown are the Museum and Library of Confederate History, and – for sports fans – the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum near Fluor Field in the city’s historic West End.

The Greenville County Museum of Art is home to the world's largest public collection of watercolors by iconic American artist Andrew Wyeth.

Other must-see museums include the Greenville Cultural Exchange Center with its African-American history museum; Roper Mountain Science Center; and Greer Heritage Museum, depicting the town’s railroad history from 1876.

Considered the premier American art museum in the South, the Greenville County Museum of Art has a range from Federal portraits to contemporary abstractions. The GCMA’s acclaimed Southern Collection invites viewers to survey American art history through works with ties to the South.

Start with the Upcountry History Museum, which opened in 2007 and explores three centuries of Upcountry South Carolina through permanent and traveling exhibits – many of them interactive – in a 45,000 square-foot public space. Since partnering with Furman University in 2012-13, the museum has tripled attendance, drawing 60,000 visitors in 2014-15.

“We have family-friendly exhibits that trace the history of the Upcountry,” director Dana S. Thorpe says. “But we’re not just about the Upcountry.”

Additions include a look at the 2016 presidential campaign; “Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation,” a 2,000 square foot exhibit on World War II and the Great Depression; and “Searching for the '70s,” a traveling Smithsonian exhibit that traces America’s environmental awakening and focuses on Greenville’s Reedy River, once polluted by the textile industries but now “the front door of the community,” Thorpe says.

About 25 percent of space is dedicated to three changing exhibits galleries. “Before, people came and said, ‘We love (the museum) but we don’t need to go back,” Thorpe says. “We want repeat business, and now we always have something new.”

The museum also offers a monthly first-Thursday “neighborhood night,” when visits are free 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

A short walk away, the Children’s Museum of the Upstate is the definition of “user- and kid-friendly,” with 19 permanent exhibits that entertain while also teaching about everything from grocery stores to banks to TV stations and even the space shuttle. Visitors (adults must be accompanied by their children) can shop in the “Baby Bi-Lo,” use a mock ATM, run a TV studio camera, even “pilot” the shuttle into space.

The museum has a changing exhibit, sometimes a traveling show, though “Buddy the Bear’s Safety Town” was produced by staff. “It’s a miniature town, where the kids can dial 911, wear a fireman’s gear, be a ‘safety inspector’ in a house, visit a boat with life vests or a car dealership and see safety seats,” president and CEO Nancy Halverson says.

The museum exists because “a bunch of moms raised the funds” to convert the former library in July 2009, Halverson says. Greenville’s is the seventh largest children’s museum in the U.S. and the 10th largest in the world, drawing 150,000 visitors in 2014 (50,000 others were served via outreach) to the three-story, 80,000-square-foot structure.

While the museum is popular with locals, it also draws 60 percent of its attendance from outside Greenville County, Halverson says. “We had visitors from 14 nations and all 50 states in 2014,” including one pair that made her smile.

“A dad and his son from Washington, D.C., came and stayed all day,” she says. “The dad said he’d told his son he could go wherever he wanted for his seventh birthday, so his son Googled and found our site, and this is where he wanted to come. His dad said, ‘I had to keep my promise, so here we are.’”

Helping keep the museum fresh is its first-in-the-nation status as a Smithsonian Affiliate. Halverson’s favorite teens attraction is a Smithsonian exhibit, “Youth Capture the Colorful Cosmos,” which teaches youngsters how to use telescopes provided online by the Harvard Astrophysics Lab. “It sends them a black-and-white image,” she says, “and they’re taught how to colorize those with NASA technology.” The museum is one of six such operations in the U.S.

Also part of that is local resident Renato Moncini, the first NASA-employed artist who once illustrated the ideas of space pioneer Werner von Braun. Moncini, in his 80s, is the inspiration for the museum’s “First and Future Artists of Space” program.

Yes, museums are educational. But in Greenville, they’re also exciting and fun. To find more information on city museums, visit www.UpcountrySC.com or www.visitgreenvillesc.com.

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