Public History at the Co-op

People in classroom

In the summer of 2011, I was contemplating the daunting task of how to gather and recognize what would soon be 30 years of history for Tidal Creek Cooperative Food Market in Wilmington, N.C. My very creative wife suggested working with the local university, UNCW, where she is a faculty member. She had the great idea of partnering with UNCW’s Public History Program to document the history of our cooperative. Even more fortunate for Tidal Creek, Professor Tammy Gordon accepted the challenge and motivated her students to create a beautiful and thoroughly researched exhibit for our store. 

This undertaking became possible after the co-op’s marketing team of Christina McKenzie and Bethany Rodgers met with Dr. Gordon, UNCW faculty member and director of the Public History Program, and some of her students. Gordon and her students suggested an installation in the retail space of the store that would be accessible to shoppers and include them in its history.

The first step was not to begin gathering the history but to familiarize the students with the co-op. After a store tour with much sampling, the students and Professor Gordon were invited to Tidal Creek’s annual owners meeting and farm tour. This casual environment allowed our owners and the students to share a meal, meet one another, and enjoy a day together at one of our locally supported farms.

The next step was a public meeting with co-op owners to gather historical information and input, develop content, and begin planning the installation design. The owners were passionate about their stories and the need for the exhibit to be in the store.

“We decided to treat the store as an artifact,” Gordon explained. “This is a place with historical continuity. The original principles that govern consumer cooperation are still in operation. It’s really living history.” She and her students were particularly eager to have the opportunity to develop a historical exhibit for a non-museum setting.

“Tidal Creek Co-op is an open community that welcomes inquiry, which facilitated every part of the project, including oral history interviews, primary source research, and exhibit development, design, and fabrication,” she said. “The values of the Tidal Creek community, which include sustainability, public education, service and community well-being, are shared by public historians.”

The students gathered oral histories from 18 longstanding owners and completed research papers. Their extensive historical research and interviews in the fall of 2011 laid the foundation for two graduate students, Beth Guertin and Chelsea Flowers, to create an exhibit in the spring semester of 2012. 

In my wildest dreams, I never envisioned our co-op having a museum in its grocery store. I love how creatively the students worked within our space, weaving exhibit elements throughout the store. Tidal Creek is extremely grateful to UNCW’s History Program for seeing the value of partnering with a local organization and capturing the rich history of a cooperative.

The exhibit, “Feeding Tradition: A History of Tidal Creek Cooperative Food Market,” was unveiled at the co-op in April 2012. It will remain on permanent display and serve as a focal point for our celebrations of the first 30 years of Tidal Creek Co-op.

See other articles from this issue: #162 September-October 2012