WILMINGTON, N.C. – For more than 100 years, Cape Fear Museum has collected, preserved and interpreted objects relating to the history, science and cultures of the Lower Cape Fear. One of its most important treasures, Curator Barbara Rowe, will retire in this month after 30 years of service with New Hanover County.
After earning a bachelor of arts in American studies with a history minor in 1980, and a master’s of art in American history with a certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Delaware in 1982, Rowe launched her career at the Milwaukee Public Museum. She made the move to North Carolina in November 1986 and settled into her new position at Cape Fear Museum.
Experiences like working with Ralph Appelbaum Associates to develop large exhibits taught Rowe about how to organize and manage hundreds of objects and images for the development process. She continues to make contributions to the exhibit process by conducting thorough research. Time spent in the NC State and UNC archives doing original research on Colonial Wilmington for Cape Fear Stories: Land of the Longleaf Pine made her feel like she was making a real contribution to understanding the region’s early history.
Rowe’s memories range from fond ones like finding rare artifacts from the 1700s and early 1800s and negative ones like hurricanes. “It’s so hard to find artifacts from that time period that were used or made in Wilmington, New Hanover County or the Lower Cape Fear. So when we can acquire a 1760s tea table and an 1820 side board, both made in Wilmington, that’s exciting.” She continues, “Hurricane Floyd was an absolute horror. We spent at least two months cleaning storage cabinets and shelving with Lysol to kill mold spores. And we re-housed our entire collection with new acid-free boxes for fear that the old boxes had been compromised by mold spores.”
Rowe’s tenure has seen significant changes to Museum operations including a building expansion in 1991 that improved gallery and collections storage spaces and introduced new standards in exhibition display techniques. But Rowe’s ultimate dream for the Museum as it enters the next decades is more and better storage for the collections. She says, “We are running out of room and new donations are coming in all the time.” One thing that has stayed the same, according to Rowe, is staff creativity, “We deal with limitations and do the most with what we have to work with – every day.”
In her retirement, Rowe plans to take a short breather and then explore options for the next phase of her career.