Old Salem adapts to audience expectations

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Starting soon, the 200,000 to 300,000 people who visit Old Salem Museums & Gardens each year will be able to download a $2.99 mobile app that will give them information on eight different stops they can make in the historic town, and they also will be able to connect digitally at wireless hotspots while shopping or enjoying lunch or coffee.

The 45,000 students who visit Old Salem each year soon will be able to see what schooling and the practice of medicine were like in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how education and medical science today are rooted in those earlier times.

Awaiting visitors also will be renovated galleries and a new library, research center and retail space.

To make all those changes, Old Salem is set to launch the public phase of a campaign that has set a goal of raising $17.66 million, a goal that echoes Salem’s founding in 1766.

Chaired by Paul Fulton, chairman of Bassett Furniture Industries, and Stan Kelly, community banking regional president for the Carolinas at Wells Fargo, the campaign already has raised roughly $10 million in its quiet phase.

More than half the total raised so far includes planned or deferred gifts, most of them for endowment, as well as donated collections that may be worth even more, says Ragan Folan, president and CEO of Old Salem.

The first gift to the campaign, with Capital Development Services in Winston-Salem serving as campaign counsel, and MCreative in Winston-Salem developing the case statement, was from philanthropist Thomas A. Gray and totaled over $2 million.

That gift included funds to endow the new Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Library and MESDA Research Center, also named for his late mother, that will be housed at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in the Frank L. Horton Center.

Gray’s gift also included a collection of rare books, manuscripts and currency, as well as funds to endow that collection, and funds to renovate space, formerly a toy museum, that will serve as the research center and library.

Funds from the campaign also will support renovation of galleries at MESDA and a broad range of improvements in the town, including Boys’ School and Vierling House.

Built in 1794 and restored in 1954, Boys’ School was the first building to open after Old Salem incorporated in 1950 and became a museum.

It initially was used for exhibits that were not related to its original use.

“We are going to restore the Boys’  School and furnish it and interpret it for all of our visitors as a school,” Folan says.

Guides will play the role of Peter Wolle, who served as the school’s first headmaster, with exhibits, some of them including hands-on items, illustrating what it was like to go to school in the 18th and 19th centuries.

And the Vierling House, which was the house and medical office of Samuel Benjamin Vierling, who was trained in Berlin and was called to Salem in 1790 to serve as the town’s physician, will be renamed The Doctor’s House.

“Much of the history of early medicine in North Carolina occurred in that house,” Folan says. “We want to highlight Salem’s position as a recognized center for medical and scientific enlightenment in early North Carolina, and try to draw parallels” to the major medical and scientific community that has developed in Winston-Salem.

Old Salem also has invested in development of a mobile app that will be launched soon for visitors, and plans to develop wireless hotspots.

The idea is to use technology “in thoughtful ways,”  Folan says.

Visitors to Old Salem “take a step back in time and experience life in a different culture,” she says. “But the 21st century also has an expectation to use technology to enhance the experience and not lose sight of the authenticity of the town and experience of life in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

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