Cape Fear Museum of History and Science is the oldest history museum in North Carolina.
In March of 1898, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) first opened the Museum in one room on the second floor of the Wilmington Light Infantry’s (WLI) building. Since its founding, the Museum has moved around the city. It was housed in two rooms in the County courthouse annex in the late 1920s, and then on the third floor of the Police Station building in the 1960s. Since 1970, it has been located at 814 Market Street, in what was a National Guard Armory building. In the late 1980s, local residents supported a bond issue for Museum improvements. In 1992, the Museum opened with new exhibits in a renovated and expanded space.
The Museum has also been run by four different organizations over the course of its history. After the UDC steered the Museum through its first two decades, they lost their room at the WLI during World War I. The Museum’s artifact collection went to Raleigh at that time. After the war, it took a decade for Wilmington – through the work of the New Hanover County Historical Commission and the UDC – to reclaim the items. When the collection returned and the Museum reopened, a different women’s organization, North Carolina Sorosis, took over operations. They ran the Museum from 1930 until the early 1960s. Then, the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County jointly administered the Museum until the county took sole administrative control in 1977.
Just as the building and management has changed over time, so too has the scope of the Museum’s collection and its mission. Originally, the institution was founded to preserve Confederate objects and Confederate memories of the Civil War. After the reopening in the 1930s, many new objects were collected, broadening the Museum’s holdings to include a wider range of historical items. Over the decades, the collection grew to represent regional, national, and international art, history, and science artifacts. In the late 1970s, Cape Fear Museum’s mission re-focused on the region’s history, science and cultures. Today, the Museum draws on a collection of more than 52,000 items to help us explore a wide range of topics and to tell balanced and inclusive local stories.
Cape Fear Museum is a department of New Hanover County and receives legislative funds through the N.C. Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative.