Space and Place



“‘I like this museum. It’s good to feel you’re part of something. A lot of times I go into different museums and enjoy the items on display but there’s an empty feeling. This place gives you a chance to feel history.’” [1]

This quote from From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, by Andrea Burns, really resonated with me. A visitor of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum wrote this for the suggestion box. While not a suggestion it is a statement of feeling included and valued in direct opposition perhaps to the national museums within the heart of Washington, D.C., which are large imposing buildings of white marble. By “empty feeling” I wonder if the visitor is talking about a lack of connection to what is displayed within the different museums he/she has visited previously. If a visitor does not feel like they are wanted or represented within a museum why would they keep going and if a museum doesn’t see a population represented in the visitation how likely is it that they will work to engage with an underrepresented visitation group?

From Storefront to Monument examines the emergence and history of the African American museum movement in the 1960s. Burns looks at four specific museums: the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum of Detroit, and the African American Museum of Philadelphia. In reading about the creation and difficulties faced by each institution I was continually reminded of the importance of space and place.   It can be difficult to get visitors to museums if they don’t feel like they belong and like they aren’t the audience for the exhibits at the museum and in the 1960s it was especially difficult to create space for African American specific museums.

Reading about the African American Museum of Philadelphia underscored the difficulty of finding the space for a community-focused museum. Originally the museum was to be in the Society Hill neighborhood. But with increased redevelopment and gentrification the historically African American space become to expensive and established residents became priced out. A battle between the museum and the newly established Society Hill Civic Association ensued and at the end the African American Museum of Philadelphia decided to change its location to the edge of Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, which was “ isolated from the areas in which more of Philadelphia’s African Americans lived and worked.” [2] This change in location took the museum away from the historic place of it’s community, which changed how the museum was preserved by those it was created to serve. Space and place are incredibly important to organizations and to the communities that build and use the organizations. This is even truer when looking at historically underrepresented communities.


[1] Andrea A. Burn, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (Boston, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 97.

[2] Burns, From Storefront to Monument, 71.

16 thoughts on “Space and Place

  1. “It can be difficult to get visitors to museums if they don’t feel like they belong and like they aren’t the audience for the exhibits at the museum…” This part of your post especially caught my attention. I think one can draw connections between the museums that Andrea A. Burns spoke about to bigger national museums. National museums should tell the stories that have affected the nation, including the stories of individuals who have lived here since its birth (and before), and yet it doesn’t seem as if every national museum truly represents everyone in the stories they tell, unfortunately. Until there is true inclusion in national museums of all genders, ethnicities, etc., museums such as the ones discussed in “From Storefront to Monument” will continue to be necessary.

  2. I think you bring up an interesting point of how a museum’s exterior can make people feel excluded without even setting foot inside. Not only is finding space for a community museum an issue, as you point out, but also making that museum a welcoming and inclusive place. Consulting the community members is a great start but I also think it is important to include them in as many aspects of the institution as possible. This means community members serving in paid staff positions, volunteering, and consulting in an advisory board.

    1. While reading I wondered about exterior having an effect in the opposite direction. In Philadelphia, the Society Hill neighborhood was in an uproar about the architecture, the zoning, etc., but say the original plan was accepted, and the building had a distinctly neighborhood look, much like the original storefront Anacostia Museum. Could that have turned away potential white visitors? Would there have been any intention to turn away anyone not part of the neighborhood experience and life? These are broad, generalizing questions, to be sure, since the situation was much more complicated. Yet exclusion may work in both ways when looking at museum exteriors. Is it acceptable for some museums, but not for others?

      1. I don’t think I’ve ever used the exterior appearance of a museum as a deciding factor to go visit a museum. The only time I have had issues with the exterior of a museum was when it was hard to locate, like the History of Comics Museum in NYC or a historic house museum that is in a neighborhood and blends with all the residential buildings. I’m not sure if it is possible, but now I am wondering what would it take for the exterior of a museum to turn me away? When I was in Jordan, despite the racism and prejudice I faced I still wanted to go into museums with my group. We were turned away because we weren’t Muslim, but that didn’t take away our desire to see what was inside the museum. There is a happy ending though. My teacher complained, and the proprietor of the museum was so excited that she spoke fluent Arabic he gave us a personal tour.

      2. You bring up an interesting question by asking whether exclusionary exteriors are acceptable for some museums. I think larger institutions should try to create a welcoming exterior, even if the building architecture is itself unwelcoming (e.g. the highly academic/governmental architecture associated with the “traditional” museum). This can be done with banners, signs, or other external additions that emphasize a fun and inclusive experience for diverse visitors. However, this is not always physically or financially possible for smaller museums, and in the case of neighborhood museums I would even argue that the building should focus first on being representative of the community that it serves. Neighborhood museums can still find ways to attract audiences that would otherwise feel out of place, this just might take the form of good outreach material and signage leading to the museum, rather than a need to change the building’s exterior.

      3. I think Kirsten brings up an interesting point that museums can work around an imposing exterior to attract people. Also, we should never underestimate the power of word of mouth, particularly within a community museum. People will share their experiences, whether positive or negative, which in some cases will benefit the museum.

    2. Michelle, I think you bring up another important point about place making, especially for creating welcoming environments. Certainly, the exterior is the first step in getting people to visit but having a welcoming staff that is reflective of the community is essential. The professionals and workers interpreting the history of any group need to reflect that community and have a personal connection to it.

      1. Emily and Michelle, this is a great point. Not only does including community members as paid staff create a more welcoming environment and a personal connection, it means that the museum is making a decision to economically invest in the community as well. If you know that your neighbor works at a museum, you may be more likely to want to see it succeed.

        I also think Patrick and Keith raise interesting points about museum facades. For many older museums it would be nearly impossible to get rid of their Classical and imposing interiors, but there are ways, as Keith suggests, around it. As for community museums not being welcoming to outsiders, I agree with Keith that a neighborhood museum’s primary goal should be to serve its direct community members.

    3. Michelle, this is an interesting question when considering the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit. The original museum started in a neighborhood apartment building in the Cass Corridor (now renamed “Midtown” to make it more attractive to young white professionals) a neighborhood notorious for crime AND the Black Power Movement. Today the Wright stands across the street from the DIA, the vary museum that Wright originally was critiquing. The building looks similar to those big grand edifices we associate with museums. This book enlightened me to this change from a community museum to a professionalized museum.

  3. I think a way to tackle the ’empty feeling’ is by finding a solution to the lack of connection black museum visitors experience. One way could be to have staff members that are not all white and another is through surveys that target all groups of people, not just whites. Diversifying staff is a way to ensure that all views are included in museum operations, programing, exhibits, etc. Also, conducting surveys that targets all groups of people will allow a museum to receive feedback on what the community wants so that it can cater to their needs and make them feel welcomed. Surveys also allows a museum’s audience to know that it cares about their thoughts, and creating a welcoming experience for them is important to the museum.

  4. This post reminded me of the problem of not finding a space, but choosing to stay at one. I was reminded of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The neighborhood has become a more dangerous, decaying part of the city, yet the museum has decided to stay there. When spending a summer in Philadelphia, I was a part of testing some walking tours lead by local professors and historians that offered more scholarly topics than the generic tourist opportunities. One of these tours went through a part of the city that was fairly dangerous to the point where guests were instructed not to wear flashy jewelry or carry expensive items with them, such as laptops, iPads, or even smart phones. Is there a trade off sometimes when we decide to stay at the location that is most historically representative of a group or topic? If people outside of that community do not feel safe to visit, isn’t it just as limiting?

    1. I think this is an interesting question. I am hesitant to say that museums should abandon “decaying parts of the city” for greener grasses, but visitor comfort should definitely be a high priority. Would there be things the museum could do to reach out to the local government or provide programming in the area to help make it a safer place? If not, would there be other means of transportation for people who feel unsure about walking through the dangerous neighborhood? I know I come from a fairly rural, small town background and don’t have much experience with cities, so I’m sure some of my comments may be naive. I think it would have to be decided on a case by case basis, and it’s obviously a very difficult question to answer.

    2. A dangerous neighborhood can be limiting, but a museum located in one should probably stay there. If the neighborhood around a museum becomes more dangerous, then the museum should adapt as much as possible. I don’t mean just an increase in security, though that might be necessary. I mean its focus should move down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Typically, museums exist to provide intellectual stimulation of some kind. If a museum is in a place where people don’t feel safe, then it should work to provide a space where the locals feel welcome and safe. Then they can engage with the museum, and produce something that shows there are regular people in the neighborhood, not just scary criminals. This way, the represented group can continue to be represented, and there can be an example available to break down stereotypes.

      1. Great point, Rick. I am reminded of Gretchen’s example of the museum in Bedford-Stuyvesant that runs a farmer’s market. It’s important that we don’t feel so important to the community that the real needs of our constituency becomes shrouded. That’s a great way to perpetuate the idea that museums are “hoity-toity”. (Wait, is that how you spell that?!)

  5. I like how you brought up space in your post, Caitlin. I think we’ve seen this semester–whether it’s in AMC or CRG–that so many spaces in our country have racial issues embedded within them. In my opinion, these spaces will never be able to distance themselves from race relations (especially considering our country’s legacy of slavery and blatant civil rights violations on the part of the government and private citizens’ alike). Therefore, I, too, was struck by Burns’ mention of the problems associated with placing the Smithsonian National Museum African American History Culture on the Washington Mall–so close to monuments celebrating our founding fathers (read, slaveholders).

    1. I was too, struck, that there were problems and issues with placing the Smithsonian National Museum African American History Culture on the Washington Mall. I mean we wouldn’t be where we are (as a nation) if it weren’t for the Africans and African Americans that were enslaved and who were forced to do free labor under great amount of stress, bigotry, racism, etc. They essentially built this nation.

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