The Voice: Fall 2001

The Voice

Halma builds amazing museum

Alumni spotlight

By Sonya Jongsma Knauss

Sidney Halma is seen pointing out architectural details on a local Federal style house.     For almost three decades, Sid Halma (’67) has been “teaching” museum visitors the history of Catawba County, a picturesque area in western North Carolina at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with rolling hills and trees that dot the landscape.    
    Halma organized the Catawba County Museum of History from the ground up—when he was hired it had no staff, no artifacts. He describes the facilities at the time as “less than stellar.” Over time, he has helped the museum grow into a well-respected, well-supported local history museum with several impressive off-site holdings.
    “It was a tough, tough thing,” he says about building support for the museum. “Part of it is you have to sell the community on the need for a museum. That took a while. If you had a wonderful artifact in your house, and someone announces they’re starting a museum, are you going to just bring it to them right away?”
    But through the years Halma was able to develop many relationships and contacts, and people in the area began to trust the museum with their prized family artifacts. Along with these locally-acquired artifacts, the museum also features traveling exhibits. Halma prefers exhibits that are a little “edgy,” including photo essays like “Martin Luther King, Jr. Remembered” and another called “Before Freedom Came.”
    These kinds of exhibits, he says, are very good to do. “In a pluralistic, multicultural society it’s important to remind people that God created all people.”
    This belief comes into play in how he thinks about the audience of the museum as well.
“As a museum director, you could be selective and only deal with certain ethnic groups, but my background dictates that I have a very populist view.” He says it’s something he has carried with him from his years at Dordt.
    “We have to be on guard so museums do not become havens of the elite. They’re there for everybody, a wide range of people. . . it’s the same as if you’re in front of a class of students. You won’t ignore certain groups because you want everyone involved in the lesson.”
    The museum, located in Newton, North Carolina, in the Catawba River Valley, has education at the heart of its mission. Its mission statement says it exists to educate the com-munity about its heritage.
    Over the years the museum has acquired several off-site holdings: Murray’s Mill, a working grist mill from the 19th century; Bunker Hill Bridge, one of two covered bridges in North Carolina and the last example of the Haupt Truss in wood; and its most recent acquisition, the Harper House, described by Halma as one of the finest Queen Anne-style homes in North Carolina. The 1887 home was offered to the museum well below market price by the Harper family, and the museum has launched a capital campaign to restore the house.
    Dordt College development representative Dave Vander Werf has visited the museum three times, and he says he learns new things with each visit.
    “It’s beyond what you would think of in terms of a local museum,” he says. He calls the museum, which spans a full city block, very impressive. “You can easily spend three hours there and feel like you barely touched it—there’s that much to see.”
    Local newspapers trumpet the museum’s events and holdings, proclaiming the museum “full of amazing prizes like one of the first dental x-ray machines. . . just down the hall from a 1930’s racecar. . . a British Army Red Coat, thought to be one of only two still existing in North America.”
    Recent events, like a fall festival at Murray’s Mill, raise money for the museum and gain accolades for being “history that’s not roped off.” The neighboring county’s Gastonia Gazette describes why the event is so popular: “there are no barriers between you and the years, no signs asking you to keep your hands to yourself. This is history you can sink your teeth into.” Visitors to the preserved and refurbished four-story grain mill are able to learn about the daily mill workings that were an important part of Catawba County’s early agrarian history.
    The fall mill festival and a pottery festival help raise funds for the non-profit museum whose existence depends on fund raisers, gifts, and annual dues of its 2000 loyal members. The museum also helps restore log cabins on a nearby nature preserve owned by a member of the museum’s board, and proceeds from an annual event held there have been donated to the museum in recent years.
    Vander Werf says he’s impressed with the museum’s ability to raise funds. He says the respect and support the museum has in the community is evident by the strong response to its recent big fund-raising campaign. “They’ve just started the campaign, it’s still in the silent phase, and they have already raised much of the money,” he says.
    Thanks to this strong base of support, the museum was able, ten years ago, to move into the finest historic public building in the area–a 1924 neo-classical revival-style courthouse in Newton, North Carolina. Made of Indiana limestone, the three-story building features, among other things, a British Red Coat and silver sword; entire rooms decorated with period furniture, including a parlor room from a local plantation house and a doctor’s examination room complete with period tables and medical tools; and farm implements representative of the way of life in the area for 150 years, before it became a textile and furniture-producing region. The museum owns many pieces of furniture, handmade in the area, and pottery that exhibits the development of the pottery industry in the region.
    “Our community has been very generous in sharing their local history with us,” Halma says.
    After Halma graduated from Dordt with a degree in history education, he taught at Western Christian High School. There he met his wife Geri, and soon they both decided to pursue further schooling.
    Although museology was not his lifelong goal–in fact he was drawn to it as a very practical matter, since after he finished graduate school the job market for history teachers was particularly poor–he says the job is very much in line with what he originally wanted to do: teach history.
    “My work in museums and museology really has a very close tie to the field of education,” he explains. “People in the classrooms educate by way of textbooks, but in museums we use three-dimensional, cultural objects to teach.”
    And he enjoys it.
    “What I like most is the variety,” Halma says. “I’m challenged every day. I enjoy teaching staff how to educate using three-dimensional objects. I enjoy the enthusiasm and the zeal of interns who come in when they discover a whole new world that they didn’t know existed in their field. And I learn new things every day about American material culture.”
    The museum now has expanded its involvement in local history, sponsoring a publications program that puts out an average of one title a year (Halma himself has done some editing and collaboration on the books). The museum is also responsible for registering local sights for the national historic register.
    With all the growth the museum has seen, Halma says it has a lot to offer for college internships. He would love to get Dordt students out to North Carolina to work with him. As he talks about the museum, Halma’s love of local history is clear. It’s something he enjoys sharing, and he hopes interested students will contact him.

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