The Asheville Museum of History opened on Oct. 26. Located inside the Smith-McDowell House and established by the WNC Historical Association, the new museum offers an in-depth and inclusive look at the region’s history, including voices and perspectives that have historically been marginalized or ignored.
On opening day, Xpress sat down with Executive Director Anne Chesky in her office on the second floor of the restored mansion. Built around 1840, the home was originally a summer retreat for the James Smith family and operated as one of the family’s two plantations.
Chesky grew up in Asheville and earned her master’s degree in Appalachian studies at Appalachian State University, as well as a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Georgia. She says the area’s history pulled her back home, and she is excited to share what she and Trevor Freeman, public program director, have created at the Smith-McDowell House.
Xpress: Did you always have a passion for history?
Oh, no [laughing]. I actually graduated from UNC Asheville with an environmental studies degree. … But I found my love for history when I was doing Appalachian studies. My final project was collecting the history of my home community in an attempt to get people talking about conservation. After I collected that history, I fell in love with finding out what happened in the past and how that applies to what and where we are today.
What are you most excited about sharing with visitors to the Asheville Museum of History?
That we represent the history of all of Western North Carolina and that we’re here in Asheville. … A formal history museum is something that we haven’t really had in this area. We’ve been working on this project since I got here in January 2020. COVID gave us a little extra time to think about where we wanted to go and how we wanted to serve the community.
I’m really excited about the fact, too, that now we have a place here in town for people to bring things they’d like to donate, such as objects and artifacts that they’d like to have preserved that can teach people and really help us visualize our past.
And while we will serve visitors to the area, we also want to serve people who have been here a long time — as well as the newer people who are making this their home.
Why is a history museum important to the area?
In Western North Carolina, we have one state museum — the Mountain Gateway Museum [in Old Fort.]
When [the Smith-McDowell House was] a house museum, we were preserving things that fit within the time period of the house. And now, we’re really expanding our collection policy and what we collect so that we’re representative of all of Western North Carolina and all the different communities and people that have shaped us.
We are a space people can contemplate how our history affects our lives today, and we are going to create programming to go along with that.
Tell us a little more about the special programming you are creating.
A lot of our programming for the last few years has been online, which has actually been really great because we’ve been able to reach people who wouldn’t be able to come into Asheville. Trevor also does a lot of hikes and tours, like the cemetery series that’s been really popular.
And now we’re transitioning into programming for all of Western North Carolina — we represent 23 counties.
In the main area, the informative kiosks slide into the alcoves beside the fireplace so that we can use that room for lectures and programs. It’s a multipurpose space that we will be able to use for programming as we gear up for 2024.
Do you think there’s an area of the museum that might surprise visitors the most about the history of Asheville?
I feel like I discover new stuff all the time. The timeline [display], which Trevor mostly put together, will probably be the place that visitors can easily learn more. It gives you these little snippets of things throughout our history that hopefully pique visitors’ interests. Some of the exhibits have QR codes where you can access more information.
Also, because we represent all of Western North Carolina, we are learning more about areas beyond Asheville that we might not be as familiar with.
You are passionate about including all history. How are you making the museum accessible to everyone?
We are a nonprofit, we do have a minimum admission charge. It’s $5 for adults and $2 for children. Every week we have Western North Carolina Wednesdays, when anyone from Western North Carolina [can enter for] free. A-B Tech students always [get in] free, and students and the military pay 50% [of admission]. We also do community-funded tickets for our programs.
It’s very important that the museum is accessible to anyone. We don’t want people to come here and then leave because they can’t afford to come in.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
One thing that I really like that we’ve done is an exhibit on the house. This had been a house museum for 40 years and certainly represented the people who owned the house. What we’ve done with our house exhibit, which is pretty small, is that we’ve worked to represent all the people that were here on the grounds.
Of course, that includes the owners, but also the people who were enslaved here and who were servants here, as well as the Native Americans who were here thousands of years ago. We’ve shown how all those stories are intertwined.
We’ll be sharing that information in the future on guided behind-the-scenes tours of the house. It’s a nod to our past where we still are representing the history in a way that speaks to everyone who was here. It’s a traumatic history and has to be done with sensitivity.
The Asheville Museum of History is at 283 Victoria Road. For more information, visit avl.mx/cxn.