People's History: Museum
Matewan, Mingo County, West Virginia
2014 – current
Southern West Virginia is in the heart of historic Appalachian coal country, now the locus of mountaintop removal strip mining. April of 1912 saw the beginning of a series of violent conflicts between mine owners, private police, and striking miners and families as a unionization effort in the region sparked a broader struggle for essential human rights and dignity. This era of confrontations would later be called the “West Virginia Mine Wars”, culminating in the summer of 1921 at the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed rebellion on U.S. soil since the American Civil War.
In the fall of 2013, a group of area residents, including local avocational archaeologist Kenny King, UMWA union coal miners, academic historians, and community activists, formed the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. They created a nonprofit and secured a building in Matewan (site of the 1920 Battle of Matewan, and subject of John Sayles’ eponymous 1987 film) in which to build a permanent museum with didactic exhibitions. I’m honored to be working as the Exhibition Designer/Coordinator/Curator with this amazing team. In the winter/spring of 2014-15, I coordinated and executed the overall exhibition design in our original building, including our graphic design and the acquisition/cataloging of all of our artifacts, replicas and loans. We opened the museum to the public on May 16, 2015, during the annual Heritage Day festival in Matewan.
In October of 2019, we shut the doors of our first building for the last time, and moved across Mate Street into a larger, permanent home in a building purchased and maintained by Matewan’s UMWA Local 1440. I am currently working on the full redesign and expansion of the museum, with a Grand Opening on May 17, 2020 during the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Matewan.
In the meantime, the museum’s main website includes information about how to find us, and when we’re open (which varies seasonally). We also have an online store for museum merch, most of which I’ve designed.
In 2016, the museum’s board and myself were awarded honorary membership in the United Mine Workers (UMWA) union Local 1440 for our work (I have since become an Associate Member). We received the Creating Humanities Communities grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2017.
We have also received funding and support from the West Virginia Council for the Humanities, the National Coal Heritage Area Authority, Turn This Town Around/West Virginia Focus, the United Mine Workers Local 1440 (District 17), two very successful crowd-funding campaigns, and a growing program for Sustaining Membership.
From the Museum’s Mission Statement:
“The museum will preserve and interpret artifacts and historical records of the local communities affected by the Mine Wars, exploring historical events from multiple perspectives through the lives of ordinary people. The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is dedicated to educating the public about the events of the Mine Wars era, including the history of the United Mine Workers of America in the local area; the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-1913; the 1920 Matewan Massacre; and the 1921 Miners March leading to Battle of Blair Mountain. Finally, it aims to educate youth, promote heritage tourism, and foster local economic development.”