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Blackwell column: Enthralled with ‘Changing Places’ at Levine Museum of the New South

If you’ve ever had a 13-year-old in the house, you can realize what a dicey proposition it is to suggest a trip to a museum during Spring Break.
We had not planned a spring trip this year, so we developed a staycation.
We had our nails done. We went out to dinner. We brought in Chinese. We saw a movie. We made art. We had sleepovers.
Friday was coming up and I had been batting around the idea of visiting the Levine Museum of the New South. I had heard about a compelling exhibit there on the radio show, Charlotte Talks.
The exhibit deals with Charlotte’s transition to a city of many cultures. Charlotte’s 1990 census stood at 500,000, and the projection for 2010 is a cool million. People have been moving to Charlotte in droves, drawn by the temperate climate, the relatively low cost of living and, until lately … jobs. More than 60,000 newcomers move to the area each year. For the first time in its history, Charlotte has had to learn to live with foreigners.
Not the kind who come from New York. They’ve been here for a while.
The kind who come across oceans.
The Charlotte school system says it has students from 151 countries, speaking 25 languages.
The exhibit, “Changing Places: From Black and White to Technicolor,” tries to foster understanding of different cultures and how it might feel to be in Charlotte from another country.
I was enthralled. I studied the Web site. I called the museum to find out how teen-friendly it might be. The docents promised me it’s quite interactive.
We weren’t disappointed.
We parked in the deck next door to the museum. I took the ticket in the museum and asked if they would validate it for us, saving us the cost of parking. They smiled and said, “Absolutely.”
Never hurts to ask.
The museum does charge admission. You can’t beat the price: all three of us got in for under 20 bucks, total.
This is a first-rate museum.
Everyone’s visited a second- or third-rate museum. You know, the kind with cobwebs and Aunt Patty’s quilts a-moulderin’ on the wall. Not the case here.
This place is bang-up. The American Association of Museums awarded a 2005 exhibit there as one of the best in the nation.
My approach with art galleries, museums, and our child has always been: don’t overstay. As soon as she seems to be losing interest, LEAVE.
She never got tired.
“Changing Places” sharpens your curiosity. It creates as many questions in your brain as it answers. I think that’s the intent.
Various stations have 3-to-5 minute videos of people sharing their experiences. Scenes invite you to browse. You’re never behind a velvet rope ó in fact, I don’t think there are any velvet ropes. You go IN the scenes.
We visited the kitchen of a family who moved here from India. We opened the cabinet doors and saw what they eat. Pots on the stove showed a typical meal. We even read the magnets on the refrigerator. A young woman told us, by video, about growing up Indian in Charlotte.
We approached a mannequin and put our feet in the footprints on the floor: stand HERE for the personal space of people from the United States. Stand HERE for Japan. Stand HERE for Saudi countries.At one point we were almost nose-to-nose with the mannequin. Wow, we said, Brazilians like to be clooose.
We visited a taquiera, a Mexican shop, and explored their foods.
One section explored what an immigrant keeps, and what he discards, from his culture, as he assimilates into life in the U.S. How do you blend in with a new culture and retain your identity?
We watched a video of high school students who explained how they felt when people say this or that. One fellow told how he feels when kids say, “Oh, that’s so gay.” Another told what he thought of “That’s retarded.”
We sat at a picnic table in a park scene. Hopscotch on the floor showed each number in a different language. Cards on the table posed a hundred questions for us to discuss:
– What makes a house a home for you?
– What is the most important issue facing the world today?
– What is more important: respecting parents, or respecting children?
Here’s the scary part. We actually discussed them. For a long time. Not an eye was rolled.
We actually discussed them.
I could hardly withhold my excitement. This. Was. Working.
We watched a video of a woman who exiled here from Niger. She struggles with English, and depends on her daughters for communication. Her high-school daughter shared her love of Charlotte and her dreams to one day become a doctor.
The exhibit ends with a flat-panel touch screen. Bubbles pass by with images of people who have also visited the exhibit. They had sat in the video room and shared their impressions of the exhibit. We touched a bubble and the person’s video played. When it ended, we touched another video and saw that one.
Our 13-year-old actually became enthusiastic. “Let’s make a video!”
So we did.
I have only hit a few of the points of the exhibit. It’s much larger, took us about two hours to go through, and provoked thought for each family member.
I’d call the trip a success.
Emily Zimmern, the museum’s president and CEO, says “Changing Places” has had a fabulous response from the community, with the strongest launch to date: more than 12,000 visitors came in the first six weeks.
The exhibit is only one component of this multi-part project.
The museum has just added a Web site, www.changingplacesproject.org, which explores the exhibit and much more. Blogs share places to discover diversity. Forums give the opportunity to converse about culture in the area.
The museum and public television station WTVI are producing a one-hour documentary, “Changing Places.” The documentary will air six times through the year; each time it runs, it will integrate new stories and interviews. There are several showings in late April and early May: check out the schedule on www.wtvi.org. Navigate to TV schedule, and search for “Changing Places.”
The museum offers opportunities to be involved in conversations on the subject. The third Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m., UNC-Charlotte sponsors dialogue at the museum on related topics. You can see the topics at www.museumofthenewsouth.org/calendar.
Finally, this summer the museum will offer groups of teens the opportunity to see the exhibit and then discuss it. The experience is optimal for cohesive groups such as Sunday School classes, teams, or youth groups. Call the museum to organize.
I would say the exhibit is suitable for kids about 8 and up. Of course, the younger the child, the shorter the visit.
The exhibit, “Changing Places,” is at the Levine Museum of the New South until February, 2010. The museum is located at 200 E. Seventh St. in Charlotte. Call 704-333-1887.

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