Activate Main Street

Activate Main Street is an initiative designed to re-invigorate both the historic district environment as well as the visitor experience. Old Salem is dedicated to making guests feel welcomed, taken care of, and fully engaged.  The issues addressed in this initiative range from restoration efforts, interpretive methodology, wayfinding, and basic welcoming gestures. Starting in December 2016, the staff at Old Salem began culling social media and internal visitor comments along with direct visitor engagement discussions regarding the Old Salem experience.  The following core issues were identified (pre-January 2017):

Not much to do.  Nothing seemed open. Only a few buildings were interpreted.
The historic district seemed vacant, unappealing, and “worn out.” Buildings need restoration work.
Great difficulty in understanding which buildings were interpreted and which were privately owned.
The visitor map was not user-friendly and did not convey meaningful information to visitors.
It is not clear if Moravians owned enslaved individuals.
“Interpretation is boring and “worn out.”  Nothing for kids to do.

With these critiques in mind, Old Salem set out to transform the visitor experience in very specific ways.


  1. Activate Main and Church Streets as a single cohesive experience, guiding visitors with new wayfinding.
  2. Increase our experience offerings (Trades, Interpreters, Educators, Retail, Old Salem Staff, and Residents).
  3. Move Old Salem’s visitor experience away from the traditional model of guided tours behind ropes and toward a more de-centralized, individualized, self-guided, tactile, and immersive experience.
  4. Expand interpretation, narratives, and experiences for those who wouldn’t traditionally visit Old Salem.


  1. Create new signage and visitor map, thinking of the entire visit as one system.
  2. Move trades and activities all along Main Street in separate building locations.
  3. Expand self-guided options; increase interpretive elements.
  4. Design public fusion experiences that overlap history with expanded contemporary narrative elements.

Significant efforts have been made toward realizing these goals:

  1. After a nine-month process with the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission installed 18 historically inspired large sidewalk chalkboards along the almost mile-long Main Street historic district.  These signs act as wayfinding elements as well as a new way to form an intimate and chatty exchange of information with the guest.
  2. Produced an expanded visitor map geared toward the needs of visitors. The map now includes a listing of hands-on experiences and digestible-sized historic facts regarding the district.  The new map covers the area from the MESDA circle all the way up to the Old Salem Coffee Pot site.
  3. Transformed our interpretation towards tactile, hands-on experiences that engage both kinesthetic and text-based learners of all ages.  We have removed all of the literal barriers to our historic spaces and re-staged them with reproductions or artifacts that can be handled.
  4. Once housed in one building, the craftsman spaces have been moved into multiple buildings along Main Street.  These independent, ticketed spots now have an expanded capacity which allows for group tours and large hands-on trades workshops.
  5. In an attempt to make the historic district more inviting, we have introduced beautiful potted heirloom plants (grown by Old Salem’s horticulture team), new benches, and picnic tables.
  6. New entrance and exit paths to interpreted buildings are under consideration with needed landscape additions and changes to support these changes.  Additions of fencing, gates, small gardens, firepits, and other elements of detritus that can convey habitation will be introduced.
  7. A new orientation process and path for all school groups has been established.  Now student tours begin at MESDA for a decorative arts primer, move to St. Philips African Moravian Church to learn about the narrative of the enslaved in Old Salem, and then the village.  This new more cohesive process assures a strong understanding of the fundamental elements that make up the heritage site.
  8. Regular painting and upkeep are occurring on buildings and landscape features that directly impact the visitor experience.
  9. Phase I of 901 Marshall Street building has been completed making the building structurally sound and watertight.  Phase II will begin with the redesign of the building into an Educational multi-purpose facility housing visible collection storage.


Old Salem’s new, controversial President is changing the way people experience history.
Fox8 News, July 26, 2017

Old Salem President works to improve popular heritage site
Fox8 News, November 29, 2017

Creative Vision: Arts Leaders aim to share education, access, funding, identity
Winston-Salem Journal, January 20, 2018

11 million in utility and sidewalk work set for Old Salem
Winston-Salem Journal, January 9, 2018