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As the Youngest President of the Charlotte Museum of History, Adria Focht is Bringing Us Into the Present Through the Past 

The new kid in charge

When Adria Focht was a young girl, she and her Girl Scout troop took a trip to the Daniel Boone Homestead in a small town called Birdsboro in her home state of Pennsylvania. While she was there, she became captivated by a small case of artifacts that had been found around Boone's birth site. Her mom took notice and later bought her a book called Archaeology for Kids.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Focht attended college at UNC Charlotte, with a double major in arts and anthropology. She later completed her graduate studies at East Carolina University, where she worked at the Queen Anne's Revenge Conservation Laboratory, studying and preserving artifacts from Blackbeard's infamous flagship.

Focht's post-graduate work only got more interesting, as she helped restore and reopen Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, then looked over a secretive Washington, D.C. warehouse that held the entire collection of National Park Service artifacts from the region that were not on display.

In November 2017, after a successful tenure as executive director of the Kings Mountain Historical Museum during which she doubled the attendance there, Focht took the job as president and CEO at Charlotte Museum of History. At 35 years old, she's the youngest to ever head up the museum.

On a recent morning, we met with Focht in the library on the second floor of the museum to chat about what she's been working toward both inside and outside the walls of the institution.

click to enlarge Adria Focht with a model of Uptown Charlotte, circa late 1700s.
  • Adria Focht with a model of Uptown Charlotte, circa late 1700s.

Creative Loafing: What's it like to be the young gun in a field like this?

Adria Focht: When I got this position, I had a lot of friends that said, "Oh, that's so cool because when I worked there or interned there it was always someone who was near retirement who was the executive director."

I think it's really exciting. I had frequented this museum and I always thought it had so much potential to really do for the community what I thought this museum could do for the community, so it's really exciting for me to be able to step into the role.

And I think that having the energy and being tuned in with museum trends and museum futurism — what's next for museums, how they're going to stay relevant — all of those things have been assets for me being younger and in this field.

What do you think you bring to this job that sets you apart?

I have the benefit of having seen this museum from the outside for so long, and so I've seen it through many different eras of leadership and direction. So I think I've seen what has worked and what hasn't worked from a visitor's perspective.

And also being in the museum realm in Charlotte, I hear it from a lot of colleagues. So I know what people think has suited the community and what hasn't. Coming into this role, that was really my goal was just to listen to the community to hear what people think they want this institution to be for them, because that's how we're going to stay relevant is figuring out how we can use history to address needs in the community and engage people in history in a meaningful way that informs dialogue about the future.

It's interesting that you say that, because in my opinion, in the past the museum was very focused in white history, when there are so many other interesting aspects to this city's history. Your predecessor Kay Peninger began to change that, but is that something you're also paying attention to?

click to enlarge Focht in the library on the second floor of the museum.
  • Focht in the library on the second floor of the museum.

I don't think that we couldn't. I think that it's so important, especially to be responsive to this specific community. East Charlotte distinctly has high populations of recent immigrants, which is one of the reasons why we do the Fourth of July celebration, when we do a naturalization ceremony and invite the public in to celebrate recent immigration.

We also have a lot of diversity compared to other regions in Charlotte, and to be responsive to the needs of this community we absolutely have to make sure that they see themselves in the narratives that we tell.

One of the things that we're doing is community-driven exhibits, asking the community to bring their items to us to be curated for display — things that speak to their diverse cultures.

I'm a big fan of Tom Hanchett, being in the Charlotte history realm, and he talks about how this is not the melting pot model, it's the salad bowl model, and a community member said, "I think the role of the museum is to be the dressing." We're the thing that brings all these diverse elements together and unifies them and helps them understand how this city came to be what it is today.

You're launching a new Passport to the Queen City program, in which young people get a passport and get it stamped by coming to monthly events based on different cultures. Tell me more about that.

Passport to the Queen City touches on a lot of the goals that we have. We're looking at our metrics now not just as outputs — as in how many people did we get and how much money did we make — but as outcomes. Did we foster empathy and did we help people understand diverse cultures and appreciate those cultures? Starting that at a young age is really an avenue that we want to take.

We want to beef up the school programming in general, but this Passport program, what it does is it invites young people in the community to learn about a specific culture through a kids' lens. So they get to have hands-on activities, but it helps engender empathy and courage and helps people understand the diverse culture that we live in today.

Just a couple weeks before you took this position, I reported on efforts to save the Siloam School, which the museum was highly involved in. Is that project something you've kept up with and still prioritize?

Yeah, we're engaging new partners with that. We meet regularly. The city has contributed $50,000 toward the moving of the structure. We are in the final stages of engaging the contract with the city to move forward with that.

Right now the stages are more preliminary stages, such as documentation of the structure. We're engaging with historic architects to basically do historic structure reports. They do the photography, they do the measurements, levels, all that good stuff, tell you what's original, what would need to be removed if we were going to restore it to period. So we're doing all the legwork now to figure out exactly what that bottom line is going to look like for fundraising for us.

Your end goal is to bring Siloam to this property. Is that a possibility for other endangered properties? I'm picturing the Eastland Mall site just down the road from here filled with historic homes and buildings, creating a village. How off base is that?

click to enlarge The Hezekiah Alexander house at the Charlotte Museum of History.
  • The Hezekiah Alexander house at the Charlotte Museum of History.

I hear that a lot, and I hear people say, "You know, you and Latta Plantation and Rosedale, you guys should all just move all your houses together," and I think what's wrong about that picture is a couple of things. One thing is, history is authentic where it happened. That's why we're in east Charlotte. This amazing Revolutionary War history happened right here in this backyard here in east Charlotte, where the creek is. And I think having the communities know that this history exists in their neighborhood is an asset.

The other thing with historic preservation is, for this school, that's really the only way that it can be functionally preserved and interpreted. But we really want to do a lot of education about what good historic preservation looks like. The Loray Mill, for instance, in Gaston County, what they did with that preservation, they paid so much attention to detail in preserving the fabric of that structure, but then they used it. There are breweries and it's residential and commercial, it's a functional historic space.

That's something that we really want to advocate for, is preserving historic structures, adapting them to current needs and making them functional because that preserves the authentic quality of those neighborhoods and that's something that we really struggle with in Charlotte. Sixty people a day moving to Charlotte is the new statistic, and as that happens, there are beautiful, historic homes — a totally functional home being sold as a lot because they're going to bulldoze it and put a McMansion up. So yes, historic preservation has to be a big focus for this institution. We merged with Historic Charlotte a few years ago, and we really want to live up to that piece of advocacy for historic preservation in Charlotte.

How does the new Mad About Modern Home Tour play into that?

So the Mad About Modern Home Tour is one of the things we do to highlight what historic preservation really looks like today. It doesn't mean that you keep the '70s shag carpet. You keep the architectural nuances of the structure, and then you adapt it for modern purposes and you live in it and you celebrate it.

I think there's that fear with Siloam School coming here that that's what historic preservation should be; that you take a historic building and you dump it at a museum. But for that particular structure, because of where it is in an apartment complex, if it's going to be open to the public, it's got to be moved. But in general, we want to advocate for other models of historic preservation and show people that these buildings are beautiful and can be reused for so many different purposes.

The museum is also involved in the City Walks Neighborhood Walking Tours. Tell me about your role in those and why they're important.

We are a partner with UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, and last year we offered three of them in partnership with UNC Charlotte, but we hope to do more, because I think that's a big piece of engaging people where they live. People are really curious about their neighborhoods, and if you're going to inspire historic preservation, people have to know, "Hey, see that little brick thing right there? That was a privy and that was part of the mill village that was here, and now all these 1960s homes are built up around it but that was an original 1910 structure." Now people know about that, and if their neighbor goes to knock that down, they're going to say, "Hey, you shouldn't knock that down because I care about it because I identify with it as the history of this area."

So I think pointing out the history hidden in plain sight is a big part of what we're trying to do with this City Walks partnership. And next year we're going to expand it, too. We like this concept of hidden history, hidden in plain sight, and so we're thinking of doing something like tours of the Rosenwald Schools in the area, tours of the various cemeteries of the enslaved peoples in north Charlotte, the historic buildings that people live in that are not just mid-century modern — different types of ways that we can engage people in the history of their neighborhoods. If it's design, if it's architecture, if it's mill history, things that will engage people and get them to care about it and to advocate for it.

Last question is perhaps the most important one. The Meck Dec, is it real?

[laughs] I don't think I can opine on that either way. But the Mecklenburg Resolves are real, and Hezekiah Alexander was a signer of the Mecklenburg Resolves and those are, I would venture to say, equally important in terms of our revolutionary history in Mecklenburg County.

We get everything from, "Maybe it did, maybe it didn't," to, "You're calling our ancestors liars!" For me, I like empiricism, I like empirical proof, and I know which one exists and that's the Mecklenburg Resolves.

What I think is fun about that is it's one of those enduring mysteries, and we have a lot of enduring mysteries around the Hezekiah Alexander home site as well. Those are the things that inspire younger kids, they get excited thinking, "Maybe I'll be the one to grow up and solve this mystery."

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