Friday, May 24, 2024

Preaching to the choir

My Billy Graham credentials match a lot of folks who grew up in Protestant middle America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. My saintly grandmother considered his crusades must-watch television, on par with Lawrence Welk. My less-devout mom played George Beverly Shea LPs over and over. I enjoyed Graham’s Charlotte crusade in 1996.

It makes perfect sense, then, that the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh is showcasing a man whose global impact tops any other Tar Heel, except maybe a certain basketball player from Wilmington. Still, perhaps influenced by our history-obsessed former editor, David  Kinney, I have gained respect for the sanctity of keeping it real. Our magazine’s stories are not credible if they lack fair, thorough context. So I wondered if our state museum is sticking to history or hero-worshipping my grandmother’s beloved TV preacher, who, like all of us, made some mistakes along the way?

The answer suggests society’s waning interest in unadorned truth-telling. We prefer to let interest groups pick up the check to present more sanitized versions, just as we rely on television networks and websites that confirm our opinions. Museum Director Ken Howard deals with such pressures daily and oversees the exhibit that was written, produced and paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Museum staff read and approved its content. Though it has been open for several weeks, Howard says his staff plans to tone down what he calls “proselytizing.” There are no plans to delve into the less savory aspects of Graham’s life, such as his ties with Richard Nixon. Certainly, there’s not much to criticize compared with the pastor’s incredible impact. But separating history and promotion will be harder for future subjects — there’s only one Billy Graham.

Howard left a career working with Raleigh investor John McConnell’s medical-software businesses to lead the museum in 2007. He’s doing an excellent job. Attendance may reach 400,000 this year — more than all peers but Texas, which has an IMAX theater, and Hawaii, which has a planetarium. More visitors are showing up, he says, because the museum doesn’t charge admission and regularly changes its exhibits — often produced by sponsors.  Attendance growth is especially impressive because lawmakers cut the museum division’s budget and staff by about 15% since 2007, to $6 million annually and 85 full-time positions. The good news is that the museum remains free, and Howard got money this year to fill the long-vacant chief curator job. Let’s hope the new curator can keep it real.

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David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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