By Laurie Paolicelli
There is something to admire about people who are so passionate about history and “protecting sense of place” that they get almost giddy when talking about it. The Orange County Historical Museum in Hillsborough has had its struggles throughout the years. There’s hasn’t been much of a budget, problems with the building, staffing shortages, and ongoing debates about what kind of exhibits to host and when.
And yet, they persist, and are excited that their weekend hours (Friday through Sunday, 11 am to 4 pm) allow visitors an opportunity to learn more about Orange County. Exhibits from our colonial past and stories of our original Indigenous people are being maintained and highlighted. And now they want to marry history with modern day exhibits filled with content and local artists that tell the story of who we were and who we are. History is alive here.
Two part-time leaders and a board work tirelessly to find new ways to teach people about our culture then and now.
A lot of the credit goes to Tanya Day, site manager and Courtney Smith, exhibits and program coordinator.
Here are two dynamos with backgrounds in education who get joy out of sharing historical facts in new and interesting ways.
Tanya Day is a former teacher who has started a second career in the museum and heritage sector. “I am passionate about knowledge, objects, and the stories that objects can tell,” she says. “I consider myself a life-long learner who’s mission it is to bring amazing opportunities to museum visitors, so they can immerse themselves in learning more about the world and themselves.”
As an example, “What’s Your Flavor?” is an exhibit that shows the history and art of cooking in Orange County through the artwork and stories of local residents.
Courtney Smith is the exhibits and programs coordinator for the Museum. Heritage cooking, she says, is a twenty-first-century idea. It’s about studying cooking methods that have been passed on from generation to generation.
The exhibit is organized into five flavor groups — sweet, salty, savory, tangy and spicy — examining ingredient usage in Orange County over time.
“For example, under sweets, obviously you’ve got to have sugar, but also honey, and tree syrup and butter,” she said. “And then under tangy, you have things like vinegar.”
Artist Carlos González García was inspired by crystal salt shakers. His piece plays on the shape of salt grains.
Under a microscope, a grain of salt is square, González García said. For the exhibit, he created a monochromatic round mosaic made out of individual, smaller squares.
To González García, heritage cooking is reminiscent of traditional Mexican dishes.
“Heritage cooking would be something very traditional to Mexican food, which is using very organic natural ingredients to make special recipes, like pozole,” he said. “Pozole’s real famous and depends on each state. It changes how they make it.”
The museum’s permanent exhibit presents the history of Orange County from the earliest indigenous people through the twentieth century. A few things you’ll learn on your stop at the museum:
Official weights and measures were considered an important protection for consumers. A law created in 1715 fined offenders 20 shillings for each count of using weights, measures, or steelyards that were not officially stamped or sealed. In 1741, the law was changed so that the weights and measures would be provided by the justices of each county. The justices were to levy a tax to pay for them and appoint a Standard Keeper to take charge of them.
You will walk away with a few “Aha” moments. Example: Bushel and Peck is about more than a favorite old song. Both are a dry volume measure of quarts. A bushel is equal to 32 quarts, while a peck is equal to 8 quarts, or a quarter of a bushel. 1 bushel = 4 pecks. Who knew?
Some Orange County Historical Museum Dates and Programs to add to your calendar:
To raise funds for the Museum, Courtney Smith has written a book to help others learn the history of Orange County through Minnie, an extraordinary dog. Available at the museum or through Amazon.com for $14.99.
The Museum invited the Chapel Hill Historical Society to present an exhibit on the history of Chapel Hill. Don’t miss this fascinating display, open now.
Revolutionary War Ladies Tea exhibit. Opening in March.
What’s Your Flavor, currently on display.
Check out their new website: https://www.orangehistorync.org
And after you’ve learned about weights and measures, make it a point to put on a little weight, the delicious way. Many restaurants are open in downtown Hillsborough. And Antonia’s offers an early bird menu. Visit the Museum at 3 pm on Saturday and then walk to Antonia’s at the end of the block for their early bird menu starting at 4 pm. Manicotti, lasagna, salad, hot bread, and hot pimento cheese. It’s worth it, even if you’re trying to lose a couple of pecks.
Where to eat in Hillsborough: https://visithillsboroughnc.com/where-to-eat
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.