Engaging Communities in the Black Museum Movement

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.”[1] 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.


[1] Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[2] Image: The US National Archives’ Photostream, arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=556277

16 thoughts on “Engaging Communities in the Black Museum Movement

  1. I always tend to think that including the people whose stories are being told in a museum into the decision-making process is a good idea. Even if there are different opinions, or there are new issues that come up because the museum staff is giving up some control, I think the stories will be more compelling and more engaging for museum visitors, and the non-museum people involved will feel more valued and will be more invested in the museum as a whole. It’s a win-win!

    1. I agree with you Megan! Museums really need to share authority with community members. Museums are created to serve those communities and those “largely untrained, passionate, prominent community members” are prime candidates to help drive the museum’s mission. As Kirsten points out, it is time for museums to get more creative and think in dynamic and revolutionary ways.

      1. Absolutely! Take the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, for example (insert shameless blogpost plug here). I’ll be talking about it today a little more, but it’s amazing to see how well the community-driven exhibits and programs help a museum truly meet its mission. The Wing has no curators on staff, so it’s a great example of a museum staff using its own expertise in everything aside from content. Granted, museum staff helps reach out to research institutions, but community volunteers are the prime engine behind content and objects.

    2. Exactly, Megan! If you want the perspective told by a Native American or an African American you have to have them involved in the decision-making process. Otherwise you’re just guessing. We were reading a book in science class this week that covers mediating group discussion (“Common Ground on Hostile Turf: Stories from an Environmental Mediator” by Lucy Moore). The book is a collection of personal stories from Lucy Moore’s work as a mediator. A lot of differing opinions seemed to stem from lack of understanding, also offense that someone had wrong assumptions about the group they were trying to negotiate with. (Most of the examples in her book were government agencies accidentally offending Native American groups because they weren’t sensitive to the Native American plight. Negotiations would have gone a lot better if the government agencies had actual Native Americans working for them to help the agency understand Native American perspectives.)

  2. Most museums wouldn’t exist without those passionate community members carrying it through the founding process. The question left open in Burns’s book is “What happens next?” a very pertinent question for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore (http://www.rflewismuseum.org/). Founded in 2005, the museum began on a mix of community, corporate, foundation, and government money. The board was specifically from the Baltimore African American community, and an amazing body for creating community partnerships and programming that really meant something for the surrounding area. However, as the museum continued in these programs, the Board had some difficulty following through on the administrative side of running a museum, sending it into a major deficit that required a small “bailout” from the Maryland State government. Of course, opening a museum just before the recession never helped anyone either.

    The current director has raised funding and marketing initiatives, but there is still a problem with institutional culture. While the museum addresses Maryland African American history, it still plays an important role as a Baltimore-specific community center. Financial troubles persist in some ways because the museum is so community focused it has not reached out for funding from a broader area. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-09-21/entertainment/bs-ae-lewis-finances-20130921_1_lewis-museum-the-reginald-f-contemporary-museum

    1. This is an excellent point, Patrick. Many of the neighborhood museums mentioned in the book experienced a period of administrative, exhibit, or programing mismanagement. While some of these problems were a result of director inexperience, others were due to limitations created by the board. In the beginning it is important to have a cohesive board with strong community representation, but it is often not enough to only get support from your community (though the community should always be a significant focus).

      1. I am curious when you say “strong community representation,” what do mean? People who solely live in that community (who may also happen to be among the more economically privileged)? Or people that are representative from all parts of the community (which may be economically diverse)? I think boards can be tricky because to be effective you need board members with financial connections; however, by limiting it to those individuals, we are eliminating the possibility of other meaningful perspectives. I think it can be a difficult area to navigate.

      2. Sorry, by that I meant that ideally there should be someone on the board who is committed to working with the community so that their views are voiced. It would be great if a respected member of the community was part of the board, but like you said, since a board is financially focused it is not always possible to represent the community directly. Even an economically privileged member of the community is not always able to accurately represent the entire community.

      3. A couple of months ago I spoke with the director of an ethnically-based historic house museum. She said that the board was comprised of members of that ethnic group, but was content to leave the museum as a typical house museum, lacking in administrative infrastructure, interpretation, outreach, et cetera. The museum had some visits from the community, but most people ignored it. The director was not a member of this ethnic group, but believed she had to wrest some control from the board to make the museum relevant to both people of this ethnic group and other community members. It’s not enough to assume that members of a given community will present that community’s best interests when they’re on the board. The participatory model has to be engaged at every level of a museum’s function to work.

    2. Patrick, I think you pose a good question –what happens next? Going back to Stephenie’s, and Andrea Burns’, point that African American museums used the principles that we’re still trying to achieve as museum professionals today. I think this is still the model for many community focused museums and increasingly being applied to larger museums focused on African American history. For instance the National Museum of African American History and Culture engages in some really interesting collaborations that still rely on this idea of shared authority. But I think the difference with the NMAAHC is that they rely on the scholarly community more.

      1. “Even an economically privileged member of the community is not always able to accurately represent the entire community.”

        I think this is a really good point, Keith. I forget who I was discussing this with the other day, but we were talking about how if museums really want to take community input seriously they need to make themselves more accessible to those who cannot afford to take time off from work or families. There is already so much demand on people’s time these days, often leaving only those with some relative financial freedom to take part in efforts of collaboration. How can museums accommodate more people from these communities that will allow everyone to have their input?

      2. Agreed, Emily. It is interesting to me that, even though many people in the 60’s and 70’s were addressing the need for community organizations to have an open and honest conversation with their community, we are still trying to convince others in our field of the value of shared authority today. It begs the question, for me, whether we are still working on this because the people who were saying it 50 years ago did not fit within a narrow view of public history; in other words, since they were African American or arguing for more inclusion, they were discounted.

    3. Great point Patrick, this reminds me of an article I read in the Detroit Free Press about the Wright Museum: http://www.freep.com/article/20140130/NEWS/301300145/Rochelle-Riley-Wright-museum-needs-financial-footing-Detroit-bankruptcy-plan The article talks about the financial problems facing the Wright and how there needs to be a comprehensive plan to protect the museum. The article discusses the local and national debate about the Detroit Institute of Arts collection and points out that the city also owns much of the Wright’s collection, but few call to protect the museum in the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. The author points out the importance of the Wright and the need to keep Detroit a center for African American culture. The article, though, fails to point out that the museum does not reflect the realities of African American life today, and instead focuses on being academic and scholarly. White people in the area don’t go there, because the museum’s connection to the Detroit riots and Black Power make them uncomfortable. African Americans don’t visit because of the Wright’s popular perception as elite. How can you have a sustainable museum if the communities you seek don’t buy what you are selling?

  3. What museum professionals and students can learn from these community members is how important shared authority is when connecting to community members. What is important in the museum field now is precisely what these community members were doing, reaching out to the community, bringing them in for their input, and allowing them to have a voice in the structure of the museum. I find that our generation is not as quick to fight for/be passionate for something as the previous generation; I believe giving them the opportunities to work with museums will be a step in helping them build a passion for change. The African American museum movement was passionate about exhibiting African American history in a positive light and finding ways to uplift the black community which lead them to reach out to the black community. There are still issues today that community members can assist museums with and it is up to these museums to engage and reach out to these communities.

  4. I thought it was interesting that you phrased this call for donations as “crowd sourcing.” I guess that is what it is, but I had not viewed it quite through that lens. Other museums had been ignoring objects that had historical significance for the African American community and allow them to save what was important to them. I think it is also interesting that the museums were not so much focused on the stuff, as engaging the community and battling misconceptions in African American history. It shows the need for people to be able to know their history and where they came from. That was why these museums were created. African Americans needed a place where their history was told. What makes these places different, I think, is the impression that they exist because of community efforts in a bottom-up style. Other more traditional museums seem more institutionalized and have an authoritative voice that seem to be producing history from more of a top-down approach. Maybe there is something to say for how approachable a museum seems?

  5. This blog post made me want to look and the professionalization of the museum profession more closely especially when looking at community based museums that might not have the money to hire professionals right when they open. How does this close off museums to people and communities? What does the professionalization of the field mean for underrepresented populations?

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