Terri White, the Charlotte Museum of History’s next president and CEO, has held leadership roles at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh and the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. She is also heavily involved in the community and is currently the executive vice president of the Junior League of Charlotte.
White has lived in Charlotte for a few years now and says it’s a “sweet spot” — she likes the balance between rural and urban.
One of her favorite parts of the relocation: she’s has been having Bojangles for the first time.
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Undergrad: Howard University
Masters Degree: George Mason University
Currently: doctoral student at UNC Charlotte, studying the economic impact of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
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Quote: “Her background aligns perfectly with the museum’s new strategic plan and its updated mission, which is to inspire community engagement and to create common ground through education and inclusive storytelling.” ~ Dee Dixon, chair of the board of trustees, Charlotte Museum of History
QCity Metro talked with White to learn more about her and her new job, which starts July 4.
The answers below have been edited for length and clarity
Have you always wanted to go into management positions?
I have. I would say that museums have always been where my passion lies and where my heart lies because I love showing people that museums aren’t these boring institutions that maybe you visited in third grade. They are vibrant organizations that tell us the background of every aspect of our lives, and to be in a management role allows me to be in a position to help guide the conversation of what stories and what representation will be seen by the public.
It’s never been about wanting to be the boss. I care about this industry so much that I feel an obligation to contribute and help people see and understand the importance of the arts and humanities and the preservation of history.
I see that you are going back to UNC Charlotte to get your doctorate degree. What are you hoping to achieve with that degree?
I’m hoping that will be my final degree. I want to look at a lot of the conversations about the need to be a diverse organization or a diverse corporation. There are a lot of qualitative reasons why that’s important. But in business, and even in the nonprofit world, it has to make economic sense. It’s not enough to just do something because it feels good for some people.
What I’ll be studying is how does diversity improve the bottom line, not just for the organizations, but for the people involved. I want to help contribute to that knowledge base and that’s what I’ll be focusing on. This impacts the museum because everyone has a history and a story to be told.
We have to discuss the stories of everybody and not just tell history from one lens and perspective. So I definitely plan on using that knowledge as I move the museum into this new strategic direction.
What is your objective going into this new position?
The museum has a five-year strategic plan in place that’ll be executed through 2027. Within that plan, there are three main pillars: exhibits and collections, people and financial sustainability. I view the museum as not just a history organization, but as the potential to be a keystone in East Charlotte and Charlotte as a whole. It represents what this community needs not just for the region, but for America and the global community.
I hope to, and will, guide the museum into the best practices and further expand the programming and exhibits and fundraising that we produce in order to create these opportunities for people.
What I hope to do in the long run is to show that the museum is an example of how history education can be engaging, current and worthwhile. I fully believe that the raw materials and resources are there to do that and I’m excited to get started on that work.
What would you say attracted you to the Charlotte Museum of History?
I am a museum junkie. What draws me to the Charlotte Museum of History is that it’s an immersive experience. It’s not just photos on a wall and you’re reading captions or artifacts behind glass cases that you can’t touch. The programming and tours and events that this museum hosts have received rave reviews.
The Charlotte Museum of History is home to the oldest surviving house in Mecklenburg County. It reminds us that while we’re going through gentrification, there have been people here for centuries. I think it’s a testament to the staying power of Charlotte as a community and the strength of the region as a whole.
What was it like at the Smithsonian Institution of Air and Space in D.C.?
That was actually my first museum job and it was an awesome experience. I was a visitor services manager there. I got to meet a lot of great aviation pioneers and astronauts. Within the industry, I got to meet with some of the museum fields. I had lunch with Lonnie Bunch before the African American Museum even broke ground, I got to see a lot of the artifacts that all of the museums were donating there.
Before that organization opened up, I would say that it also gave me a broader view of what museum work can be. That’s what I’m excited about bringing here to the Charlotte Museum of History. It’s a former Smithsonian affiliate; I’d love to reengage that partnership. The Smithsonian really trains people to view museums as not just buildings with old stuff in them, but as living breathing entities that can improve the lives of the people that interact with them; I hope to bring that same energy to the Charlotte Museum of History.
How will your background contribute to you moving forward as president, CEO of the Charlotte Museum of History?
I can see the mission of the organization from two lenses. I can bring best practices to the Charlotte Museum of History, and still reach out to the network that I have, as the field continues to evolve. I can also look at the numbers and understand what we need to, what financial goals we need to meet and where we can focus our energy so that we’re maximizing the return on the dollars that we are donated.
What are some of the challenges that you face working in corporate America as a black woman?
Well, I think like most black women, there is the looming concern of being considered an angry black woman if you are being too passionate about certain topics. I think that’s why a career path in the museum world is so great for me because my passion can be interpreted completely differently when I’m speaking about specific exhibits or preservation activities.
I will say you have to believe that you can do the job. And don’t wait for perfection but do your best. Go where you’re celebrated and go where you are appreciated. If a negative experience happens to you, it’s not a reflection on you as a person. It just meant that wasn’t a good fit.
How was your experience in attending an HBCU?
I love Howard with all of my heart. It was the only college I applied to and it was the only place I could see myself attending. I became fully immersed in campus life.
Howard also has its own museum and it shows those major moments in Howard’s history that shaped the way the university runs today. That was the first place where I thought maybe I can make a career out of this. I can do more than just visit. I can show people that there is history and worthiness in every subject. And I think that that influence has led me to this.
What sparked your love for museums?
My mom was very big on making sure that I learned the history of our community. I was involved in art classes in museums from elementary school through high school. I can’t remember a time in my life when someone wasn’t pointing me into a History Museum or Art Museum. It’s just always been a part of my life.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love traveling. I have not done a lot of it recently, for obvious reasons. I love baking. I don’t do it often because I only have two dogs. As much as they would love to eat cake all the time, I try to be a responsible dog owner. I’m really big on houseplants but I have probably a shameful amount of them.
What have been some of your biggest successes?
This is going to sound corny but I will honestly say, earning this position here is probably the highlight of my career. It’s a role that I’ve always wanted and thought I’d be really good at. In a lot of museums, there isn’t the opportunity to move because people just don’t leave those spaces very often.
So the fact that I had the experience and this position opened up while I was in Charlotte, the stars just aligned so perfectly. I’ve done a lot of great things in my career, but I’m most proud that I was lucky enough to be here and to be prepared for this opportunity when it came open. I hope to do even greater things than what I’ve done in my past over the next few years and decades with this organization.