How do new museums find a location and a community to build a home for history? In the 1960’s and 1970’s African American groups in Northeastern cities denied their scant representation in the staid, established museums. These groups insisted that the best way to remember and present their history was for to African Americans to build separate museums to house their artifacts and tell their story. The break from traditional museums evident in this movement reflects the previous inability or lack of desire on the part of existing museums to appropriately address the African American story as part of the American story, on a level with the normative, accepted narrative.
One issue these fledgling museums met with in every instance was the dynamic transformation of community fabric and composition. The drastic transitions that African American communities in American cities underwent due to urban renewal projects complicated the decision of where to position a new museum; should the museum be located in the area of historical significance or in the area currently populated by the people it serves? The book Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, by Andrea Burns, describes some of the challenges related to location for several museums, including the Dusable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit, and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Philadelphia.
Today, museums struggle with some of the same questions these museums were forced to address in the 1960’s and 1970’s: how to engage the museum’s target audience, how to make the museum physically and intellectually accessible to its visitors, and how to navigate tensions with local politics and the conflicting ideologies of other organizations. These museums, started by individuals largely without formal museum training, implemented practices of community outreach and shared authority that are considered somewhat radical in the museum world today. For instance, the Dusable Museum of African American History published ads calling for “Museum Scouts” to donate “‘Negro family relics from slavery time,’ including books, photos, and costumes.” This request for donations ensured investment from community members, and introduced the concept that their voices, their memorabilia, their history was worth sharing, was worthy of display and explanation in a formal museum setting. Equating African American history with the whitewashed, accepted history empowered community members to participate in the museum and invest in its future.
In addition to effectively crowd sourcing collections and content, these early African American museums reached out to prominent members of their communities to be partners in deciding everything from the name to the mission of the museums. Again, calling on prominent community members for input in major museum decisions is a practice that is part of the recent large-scale paradigm shift in museum practice. Not only were these early African American museums revolutionary in their content- highlighting a group that was underrepresented in the major museums and the mainstream historical narrative, but they were also implementing practices it has taken the museum field as a whole more than thirty years to implement on a broader scale.
What can professionals and students in the museum field learn from the practices utilized by these largely untrained, passionate, prominent community members? Ideally, codified museum practice is the result of a collaborative effort to combine what works in education, collections, and exhibitions from museums across the field. This list of customary practices in museums can be both helpful and detrimental to new museums, giving them a template to work from, but in some ways limiting creativity. Fresh, external perspectives from untrained eyes can add a dynamic, revolutionary way to identify and address potential shortcomings and opportunities in a museum.
 Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).
 Image: The US National Archives’ Photostream, arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=556277