Wegner takes the throttle at Transportation Museum

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 2, 2012

By Emily Ford
SPENCER — With 35 years of experience in nearly every aspect of running a museum, Sam Wegner took the reins Thursday at the N.C. Transportation Museum to lead the facility during its most challenging time.
“We are delighted to be able to attract a person of Sam’s experience and caliber to the museum,” said Roy Johnson, president of the nonprofit foundation that supports the museum.
Johnson served on the committee that chose Wegner after a national search to replace longtime director Elizabeth Smith, who retired Dec. 1.
From curating artifacts to raising money to managing employees, Wegner has done it all in a museum career that spans a half-dozen states.
The 59-year-old Idaho native comes to Spencer from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, where he served for 11 years as vice president of education and strategic planning.
The WWII museum jumped from 20 full-time employees to roughly 200 during Wegner’s tenure. When he left, Wegner was planning for war-related anniversaries in 2018 and 2020, as well as the 2013 Super Bowl.
“He has a very full background,” Johnson said. “That’s the kind of experience we will need to cover the bases and take the museum into the future.”
Wegner arrives in Spencer after the state announced plans to eliminate $1 million in funding to the museum. This year, the state cut the appropriation roughly in half to $576,000, forcing the museum to charge admission for the first time in its 29-year history.
Attendance has plummeted by 25 percent, and the museum had to lay off seven of 18 full-time positions.
The museum should make about $350,000 this year from admission, rental fees and grants, but a bare-bones operations budget for the facility runs about $750,000.
Unless museum advocates can convince the General Assembly otherwise, the state will cut all funding next year for operations.
“There are a lot of opportunities here,” Wegner said. “Obviously, there are also a lot of challenges.”
The museum isn’t alone, he said. Many state-owned museums and attractions across the country have been directed to make money for the first time.
Wegner said while he gave due consideration to the challenge in Spencer, it didn’t prevent him from taking the job.
“This facility … is fully capable of rising to meet it, No. 1,” he said. “And No. 2, it’s just the way it ought to be.”
In the new economic reality, state-run museums need to earn their keep, Wegner said.
“Everybody has to work a little harder,” he said.
The museum must act more like a business and find ways to generate revenue, he said. The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources operates the museum, and Wegner said he’s confident the agency will advocate effectively for the museum in Raleigh.
“I have faith that it’s going to work out OK,” he said.
The museum hosted a reception Thursday to introduce Wegner.
“This is a great day for the museum,” said Keith Hardison, director for the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties and Wegner’s boss. “He is the man that will lead us forward in a very positive and proactive way to make the museum bigger and better than ever.”
Regardless of what happens with the state budget, Wegner said the museum will rely more heavily on volunteers.
“I look at that as an opportunity,” he said. “It’s a richer experience if you’ve got people who are willing to give of their time and talents.”
Wegner said he took the job because it offers him the chance to run a state-owned historic site, as well as move closer to his daughter and her family in High Point.
Wegner and his wife, Linda Wegner, have been visiting the Piedmont since 1998, when their daughter earned a full ride voice scholarship to Greensboro College. Wegner will live with his daughter’s family and commute to Spencer until his wife wraps up her job in New Orleans and moves north.
Originally from a small town in southern Idaho called American Falls, Sam and Linda Wegner were high school sweethearts. They continued to date during their first two years of college, then married and threw everything they owned into a 1962 Chrysler Newport and drove to Tucson, Ariz., to complete their undergraduate degrees, Sam in history and Linda in voice.
Sam Wegner earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Idaho. Since then, his career has taken the couple across the country, including a stint in Williamsburg, Va., where Wegner served as deputy director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, before moving to Bismarck, N.D.
There, he spent two and a half years as superintendent of the State Historical Society of North Dakota and also served as the state history preservation officer.
From Bismarck, the couple moved to New Orleans so Wegner could take the post with the WWII museum.
In all, Wegner has worked for state historic site systems in North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia and now North Carolina, in addition to posts with private museums like the one in New Orleans.
He said he’s happy to return to the public sector.
A state-run museum “is entrusted with preserving and interpreting some of the most valuable resources that a state has,” Wegner said.
He called the sprawling Spencer museum site — once the home of the largest steam locomotive servicing facility of Southern Railway Co. — “pretty darn cool.”
Constructed in 1896, Spencer Shops at its peak employed nearly 3,000 people.
But transportation is more than looking at trains and planes, Wegner said. It’s a broad theme that encompasses how people move from place to place and what happens to towns and cities that become transportation hubs, as well as those that don’t.
“We have an opportunity to talk in greater depth about the impact transportation has had in the development of the state,” he said.
Wegner said he sees his job as making the Spencer museum relevant to today’s tourist and an important resource for all 100 counties in North Carolina.
“It’s not just telling the story of the past,” he said.
Wegner wants the museum to show how the development of different modes of transportation define where North Carolina is today, and how it will continue to shape the state’s future.
He said he wants to investigate beefing up the museum’s online presence and look at things like virtual programming.
Wegner has two priorities.
“Figure out how the place operates,” he said. “And that has to happen very quickly.”
Then, come up with some ways to make money.
With a new state budget year set to begin July 1 and no guarantee of any money for the museum, that has to happen almost as quickly.
People used to say working in a museum was easy, Wegner said.
“You don’t even have to feed anything,” he said they told him. “The stuff just sits there.”
If that was ever true, he said, those times are gone.
“You have to demonstrate your relevance and take care of business, exerting as much effort as you can to provide a quality experience for visitors,” Wegner said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.