Museum X: Separate Places for Separate People

What do you do if there is no place for you? Make one. This approach became popular amongst Black separatists during the time of the Black Power Movement. Black separatism was a movement to create separate institutions for people of African descent. Mainstream views amongst black separatists held that blacks can never fully advance within the larger, white-dominated American society, which had historically been hostile towards incorporating blacks. Malcolm X, a black separatist, once said:

 

When you go to a church and you see the pastor of that church with a philosophy and a program that’s designed to bring black people together and elevate black people, join that church! If you see where the NAACP is preaching and practicing that which is designed to make Black Nationalism materialize, join the NAACP. Join any kind of organization–civic, religious, fraternal, political or otherwise–that’s based on lifting… the black man up and making him master of his own community.[1]

Image

Malcolm X

Malcolm X touched on the need for institutions that are made for and by blacks to empower themselves. Black separatists felt that African Americans should physically separate themselves and make independent efforts towards success without the fear of white oppression. Instead of supporting inclusion, black separatist advocated voluntary exclusion.

 

When reading Andrea A. Burns’ Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, I was reminded of the ideas of Black separatism. Burns recognizes the influences of the Black Power Movement on the “Black Museum Movement.” Mainstream museums failed to represent African Americans, making them an invisible part of the historical narrative of the country. Even as museums run by white professionals made attempts at inclusivity, they were shallow gestures that reinforced black stereotypes.[2] By not making room for black history and culture in our mainstream museums, the response was the “Black Museum Movement” to challenge and reinterpret the traditional representations of African Americans.

 

The African American Museum of Philadelphia was one of a growing number of museums neighborhood museums that functioned as a free space. A theme throughout Storefront to Monument is the power of place. The creation of this museum as its own place served as a symbol to the elevation of African American history and culture and affirmed their identity. The power of place meant that site of AAMP was subject to extreme political scrutiny.

 

When selecting a site, the Afro-American Historical ’76 Bicentennial Corporation aimed for an area which possess “an income and racial mix so that people of various income groups and racial background would feel comfortable approaching the museum. In other words, the area should not be solely poor, middle class, or wealthy, nor should it be a ghetto, white or black.”[3] The preferred location for the museum was originally in a neighborhood called “Society Hill.” A historically black neighborhood, it was at the time populated with upper-middle class white residents. Meeting a large amount of resistance and restrictions imposed by the surrounding residential community, the museum’s design by architect Theodore Cam would have to be severely compromised to stay at that site.

 

Museum advocates ultimately decided to pick another location in order to open in time for the Bicentennial. The new location was at the corner of 7th and Arch streets. While it was just a block from Independence Mall, the area was congested with office buildings near the edge of Chinatown. It lacked the heritage sites, such as the Mother Bethel AME Church, that Society Hill featured. Physically removed from the Avenue of the Arts and African American heritage sites as well as the communities where African Americans currently lived and worked, the new location left much to be desired.

 

While the power of place is evident in the conceptualization of a separate African American museum, practical compromises were made in the case of the AAMP. After all of the politics that went into choosing where to build this museum, the African American community was left to wonder whether this was really their “neighborhood” museum. How do we effectively strike a compromise between being a “neighborhood” museum for the people that we represents while not separating ourselves and remain welcoming to a larger audience?

 

 

 

[1] Catherine Ellis and Stephen Drury Smith, Say it Loud: Great Speeches on Civil Rights and African American Identity, (New York: The New Press, 2010), 18.

 

[2] Andrea A. Burns, Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 3.

 

[3] Storefront to Monument, 60.

18 thoughts on “Museum X: Separate Places for Separate People

  1. Just as we create historic house museums from places that important people owned or lived in or had some connection to, it seems to make sense to either create museums in places that have some connection to the people or events they represent, or to put them in a centrally located area of a city or town so that they can be accessed easily. The eventual location of the African American Museum of Philadelphia seemed to be an afterthought, unfortunately.

    1. I think the time crunch hindered them from appropriately exploring alternative options. Representation at the Bicentennial, while symbolic, left a permanent institution a less than ideal location.

  2. Emily your post really made me think about “the power of place.” I ran across this article (http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/10greatplaces/2014/02/13/black-history-african-american-museum/5453527/) from USA Today talking about places where black history comes alive. It is interesting that the museums highlighted are, for the most part, specifically African American History museums. Can anyone think of other museums on the list that “bring history alive” but are not exclusively African American or black history museums?

  3. Fortunately we see all of the neighborhood museums in Burns’s book still doing great things. However, Megan, your point made me think about the sustainability question. A lot of the problems we see with historic houses today comes from a lack of enthusiasm or a strong community support that existed when the house museum was founded–but has since died out. Can neighborhood museums suffer the same fate over time, simply because the neighborhood changes?

    1. In the case of the African American Museum of Philadelphia the neighborhood was already changed by the time the museum was built. One of the reasons it was selected to be a location was because the area started as housing for a large portion of the black community. By the time the museum was being planned, the area had changed and a lot of white citizens were living there. I guess we can look at the AAMP as a living answer to your question then, Patrick. How long has it been since the museum was founded and do we think its relevance has died out because the neighborhood changed?

    2. Great point, Patrick. I guess the question would then be: why hasn’t the museum done anything to change? Where did that enthusiasm go? Stephenie brings up a good point below in saying that we need to think about why the museum would be struggling and not be hasty to ascribe these changes to the neighborhood itself.

    3. This is a really good point, Patrick. I think this applies to many institutions, not just neighborhood museums. Should it be the responsibility of a traditional art museum, for instance, that originally represented a white elite class to change its mission to be representative of a more diverse audience as the downtown area surrounding it changes? And how should it go about that in a way that is respectful?

  4. You bring up good questions Emily. I think what was important to the African American museum founders and the whole philosophy behind creating African American neighborhood museums was to uplift, serve, give back, and empower the black community. I think these neighborhood museums should be located in neighborhoods that have a high population of African Americans to continue this legacy and praise black history. The neighborhood museum allows African Americans to see themselves in a positive light and gain self-dignity, which was at the heart of the black museum movement. As Megan pointed out, I think neighborhood museums should be located where there is a connection to the people it represents. When the neighborhood changes, the museum will then have to change its programing but continue to sustain its focus on uplifting black culture (or whatever culture/event it represents), by connecting it and being relevant to the current issues. Staying relevant and in tune with what your community wants is one way a neighborhood museum effectively serves its community, no matter what that community is.

    1. Araya, I really like your point about how African American neighborhood museums allow African Americans to see themselves in a positive light. I also think that they need to be in the neighborhoods of the communities that they serve. It creates a issue of accessibility for the populations that they are representing. However, when neighborhoods begin to shift, the museum needs to reevaluate but not disregard the original story of that community. Stories often undergo changes, as do neighborhoods, and they have to change to remain relevant.

      1. Your comment about neighborhood changing and reevaluating the story of the community reminds me of whats going on in El Barrio. The neighborhood had been, in recent years gentrifying, and I wonder how El Museo del Barrio will be able to serve the needs of their community as the demographics of the community continues to change.

    2. This conversation of changing neighborhoods and the power of place makes me think of our Professional Seminar with Frank Vagnone. The Historic House Trust is dealing with a somewhat similar problem –the museum was originally intended to the preserve the legacy of Lewis H. Latimer, an influential African American inventor. From my understanding, this was initially a means to uplift the black community by telling the story of Latimer and the contributions he and his family made to science and art. But that neighborhood has completely changed as we discussed in class that day. The case of the Latimer house is definitely an instance of the power of place because we’re dealing with the Latimers’ home. Maybe his story could be just as effectively told in an exhibit in another museum but the connection to his home makes his story more tangible and powerful. Just as we discussed in class it is a political situation of reinterpreting the house to make it more relevant to its surrounding and local community. This requires trying experimental things at the only African American site the HHT oversees and this could send a particular message to the African American community. Similarly, the AAMP’s opening had some political motivations –from my understanding the hastiness was to really send a message and position the African American history and heritage of the area as equally important as the traditional narrative.

  5. I think that the decision to build the AAMP before the Bicentennial demonstrates a complex and misguided audience focus. The museum always sought to serve the black community that originally composed the majority of Society Hill’s residents, however, some of the organizers believed that the completion of the museum in time for the Bicentennial would send a bigger message about the widespread ignorance of black history and show that African Americans were important members of America’s history. Rushing the building of the museum seemingly provided a way to establish a greater consciousness of black history among both African American and white residents of the city. However, the AAMP distanced itself from the community it was trying to serve and failed to develop engaging exhibits over the next few years because of this haste. If the museum had focused on meeting the needs and desires of the community first, there is a good chance it would have been more successful from the start and then it could have tried to invite a larger audience. I am not sure whether neighborhood museums necessarily lose their importance by being located outside of the neighborhood, but when the museum ceases to focus on serving its community before expanding to other audiences it certainly does fail in its mission.

  6. I thought it was really unfortunate that the museum couldn’t be on Society Hill. While the neighborhood was changing there was still a relationship between the neighborhood and the African American community particularly with the church that was still active. I wonder if the museum had been able to be built there what that would have done for the relationship between those who were newly moving into the neighborhood and those who were being displaced.

    1. It is an interesting question Caitlin asks. What bridges could have been built between these communities if the museum was located on Society Hill? There could have been the potential for the residents to connect with those being displaced and perhaps inspired activism against gentrification from this community. At the same time, we talked about segregated spaces in American Material Culture and the coded messages spaces can have. Would African American visitors have felt comfortable visiting the museum on Society Hill, a white gentrified neighborhood, even though that space was originally a black space? What if an African American family was strolling the streets of the neighborhood after visiting, would they be harassed by residents or the police? The idealism of building bridges between communities clashes with the violent realities of confronting segregation.

  7. I think that the word neighborhood implies a sense of physical space in addition to the intangible cohesiveness of a community. It is the layering of the cultural landscape with a small footprint, with the people who inhabit the houses and walk on the sidewalks of that community. What defines a neighborhood museum? Is it a museum that addresses the history or interests of a specific neighborhood? Is it a museum that it is located within the physical space of a neighborhood? Is it a museum that serves a specific community? I think a neighborhood museum has to accomplish at least one of these tasks. However, the scope of a neighborhood is a relatively fluid concept. For me, a neighborhood implies a closeness, an area where everyone knows or recognizes each other; a neighborhood would therefore not encompass all African Americans in Philadelphia. I think the AAMP serves a grander purpose than that of a “neighborhood” institution.

    1. Kirsten, I’m with you–in my opinion, the word “neighborhood” implies a much more focused group of people. With that said, if a neighborhood museum serves a predominantly African American neighborhood–but a neighborhood that does have a small non-African American population–does the neighborhood museum need to consider the other group(s) in the neighborhood? I say absolutely. But, what happens when the neighborhood museum has limited resources–whose story does it tell?

    2. That is a good point–I have a hard time seeing how a population as large as the African American population in Philadelphia could form only one neighborhood, not multiple ones. Yet there would still be a significant symbolic value to having the museum in one of the city’s African American neighborhoods. The museum would make the neighborhood stand out as a specifically African American community, one that might draw people of other ethnicities. This could be a point of pride for every African American who feels a connection to Philadelphia.

      I’ll use a different Philadelphia institution as an example. The Italian Market exists in Bella Vista, one of the city’s historically Italian neighborhoods. There are certainly other ones in the city and suburbs, like Marcus Hook and South Philly, but Bella Vista is where the market is located. It’s hugely popular with people from every background. I’m a half-Italian from the suburbs–not even the city proper–and I still feel a bit of pride over the market. Its existence and popularity is an affirmation of my identity. Ironically, the Italian Market is now largely comprised of Asian and Latin American vendors who replaced the Italians who moved out. The neighborhood changed and the market adapted, yet I still feel more connected to the Philadelphia area because this market exists. What if AAMP was located in a neighborhood that was once mostly African American but no longer was? Would this automatically lessen its impact, or would the symbolism in its creation still give it an effective legacy? I suspect the latter would be the case.

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