Before the Paradigm Shift: African American Neighborhood Museums

Before the 1970s, history museums focused almost entirely on the preservation of Eurocentric ideals and material culture. They often only served and attracted white upper-and middle-class audiences through the creation of programming, which was specifically targeted at predominately white audiences, and unwelcoming atmospheres. Institutions refused to discuss the real world issues that were plaguing the communities surrounding them and often ignored or failed to tell the histories of minority populations. In the late 1960s, museums began a process of transition from focusing on the preservation of collections, to education and engagement with larger and more diverse communities, known in the museum field as the paradigm shift. In Andrea Burns’s From Storefront to Monument: Tracing Public History of the Black Museum Movement, the history and impact of African American neighborhood museums on this paradigm shift is traced through a detailed examination of racism, politics, museology, and the challenges faced by early African American museum professionals.

African American neighborhood museums, such as the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, the International Afro-American Museum (IAM) of Detroit, and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (ANM) in Washington D.C., were not created in a vacuum, they were the result of years of living with social and racial inequality. They were built on the backs of activism and social protest and garnered support from the Black Power Movement. Black museum professionals recognized that museums before 1970, “rendered African American history and culture invisible, thereby deleting African Americans from the historical narrative.” [1] Desperately trying to showcase the diverse history of African Americans, museum professionals working in black neighborhood museums overcame challenge after challenge to build museums that focused on community engagement and the creation of exhibitions about current social issues, all while creating spaces for empowerment and education.

Unlike their predominately white counterparts, African American neighborhood museums recognized early on that their museums could offer their communities much more than generic museum exhibitions. They understood the need for education, and therefore created “free spaces [which] offer[ed] a location where marginalized groups can acquire greater self-respect, strengthen their sense of dignity and independence, and work toward a heightened sense of communal and civic identity.” [2] Events like ANM’s “show and tell,” not only helped the museum build its collection, but the gathering of people created a social atmosphere and instilled a sense of pride in the community. People who donated objects to the museum knew that when they visited ANM, they would see themselves reflected in the exhibitions and they had the sense that their story mattered.

Brochure for the International Afro-American Museum’s mobile museum.

Visitations by school-aged children have long since been a part of museum attendance, but without proper educational programming, many museums missed an opportunity to educate and be a catalyst for change within these young groups. African American neighborhood museums saw the potential that museums had in helping to educate those they “believed to be in danger of slipping through society’s cracks: black children and teenagers.” [3] While educational programming took place within the walls of these institutions, one of their greatest contributions to community education came in the form of public outreach programs. The ANM and IAM both created mobile exhibitions that traveled to schools and churches. These mobile exhibitions helped bring educational tools to communities that lacked dependable transportation and to schools that suffered from inadequate state and federal funding. By highlighting these inequalities, neighborhood museums and their mobile exhibitions became some of the first institutions to incorporate accessibility into their overall missions. These mobile museums brought educational programs and objects to a community that would have otherwise not been able to visit the museum. Additionally, the mobile museums did not discriminate based on physical or mental ability and made itself available to a diverse group of people.

The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction exhibition

In addition to educational outreach programs, African American neighborhood museums began to create exhibitions that explicitly dealt with current social, racial, and economic issues. ANM’s The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction, was one of the first exhibits where museum professionals argued that museum exhibitions, “must have relevance to present-day problems that affect the quality of life,” of the museum’s surrounding community. [4] The Rat placed community rat infestations and lack of proper trash disposal within the Anacostia community in the national spotlight. While many local residents argued that the exhibition was too much and that museum attendance would suffer, the ANM felt strongly about using The Rat to protest inequality. Moreover, while today’s museums still struggle with figuring out how much time and distance is needed before an institution can talk about a specific event, the ANM and other neighborhood museums started a dialogue on current issues. After the success of The Rat, neighborhood museums began creating other exhibitions that brought to light social issues plaguing the community, while institutions like the National Museum of American History continued to stray away from discussing issues that affected minority populations.

African American neighborhood museums revolutionized the way in which museums engaged with their communities and became the catalyst for the paradigm shift we still see today. It can be argued that without the continued efforts of African American museum professionals and their usage of neighborhood museums as educational spaces, the museum field we know today would be very different.

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

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 75.

[4] Ibid., 93.

Image Credits:

Featured: Children at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum:

International Afro-American Museum mobile exhibit: photo by Patricia Norman from Andrea Burns’s From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement 

The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction exhibition: 


15 thoughts on “Before the Paradigm Shift: African American Neighborhood Museums

  1. The work of these museums was clearly ahead of their time, and I like how clearly you explain their involvement in the community as well as its effects. The Rat exhibit is so interesting because instead of looking for more subtle ways to address inequality, they used a relevant and current issue. I think that contemporary museums can learn from this example, in creating a place to address pressing issues in a direct but non threatening way.

    1. I totally agree that some contemporary museums still need to catch up to what these institutions were doing 40 or so years ago. The ANM, DuSaable, and IAM were founded specifically to serve their communities, not necessarily to preserve objects. This situated them as forums rather than temples immediately. Maybe it is easier for museums to start out serving their communities rather than change to community-centric institutions, but this isn’t an excuse for the glacial pace at which some museums are shifting focus.

      1. These museums had the paradigm shift figured out before the paradigm shift was an accepted thing in the mainstream museum world. These institutions worked almost as more of a combined community/learning center. They offered great opportunities to their communities, something which many museums are just now beginning to do.

      2. I think you’re right, Christine. Museums have to tackle their pasts and the reasons why they were created (colonialism, inequality, elitism) and understand that they have to break themselves from this. This seems to be more of a challenge than creating a museum solely focused on communities.

  2. Trish, I think you bring up an important point with your blog that these museums and their work was not happening in a vacuum. It came as a response to social movements both on the local and national levels. These institutions were able to take these larger community issues/discussions and were able to successfully engage visitors but also make a difference for the communities they served.

  3. Your introduction does a great job of emphasizing the importance of this movement–it was not just about making small changes to an existing field. Museums were active players in enforcing a cultural hegemony, and challenging their role in determining cultural value was a serious, crucial attack on that power. It is so important to keep this in mind today, and to always be aware of what power structures or injustices your institution is reinforcing, whether intentionally or not.

  4. This was a really great blog post that concisely summarizes the groundbreaking advancements African American neighborhood museums that were integral to the paradigm shift and the effects of these advancements on the local community. I think we can really take some lessons on educational programming as well as the importance of tackling controversial issues.

  5. I think that this information fits in really well with everything that we’ve been learning so far, but does shed some new light on the paradigm shift. Until now, I had mostly been thinking of the shift in terms of collections vs. education, or rather only collections vs. a variety of educational approaches. But the shift is clearly about so much more than simply a step away from exclusively object-based sharing. Changing social attitudes and increased awareness have also clearly contributed to a whole new approach to education and the sharing of new and influential ideas, and they are still contributing. We still have a long way to go, and should continue to take inspiration from those museums that took the first big steps.

  6. I think it is wonderful how you connected what have learned about the paradigm shift from last semester Trish! I found it fascinating that museums that often have the most restricted access to resources are often the ones that have the best programs/exhibits. I also enjoyed seeing historically white institutions follow the lead that African American neighborhood museums (museums that the white institutions historically looked down upon). Great post, Trisha!

  7. I really loved the way your blog post explored the different ways in which these new museums, and specifically the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, wanted to be relevant to their community. Having the mobile programming connects with the community because it is the museum being invited to peoples’ churches or schools and does not feel like an intrusion. Additionally having the exhibit about the infestation problem shows the wider audience the issues the neighborhood is dealing with in order to hopefully bring about change.

  8. It really shows the glacial pace that the mainstream museum world moves at. These museums were decades ahead of their time, and they made innovations that many museums today are struggling to implement, or refusing to implement at all. It makes sense that they put these into practice, too. For a lot of museums, the Paradigm Shift was sparked by the loss of institutional and government support that these museums never really had.

  9. I liked your post and the readings for this week because they shed light on museum issues and aspects of the paradigm shift with which I was previously unfamiliar. Unlike major institutions that came before them, organizations like ANM, IAM, and DuSaable were not just founded for the community, they were created by the community. As Christine pointed out this immediately made them places for discussion and debate. Moreover, because they were so close to the people they served, the museums were able to quickly resolve questions that we often still struggle with today, such as how we should respond to contemporary issues. To me this suggests that more museums need to increase their focus on, and involvement with, the communities that they serve.

  10. I like how you talk about the ways that neighborhood museums addressed the needs of their community through education and exhibits. The black museum movement and the way museums took on controversial issues in their neighborhoods is so interesting.

  11. Wonderful post Trish. I think you said it best in writing that these museums were not created in a vacuum, but were a deliberate response to the situation in these urban communities and the inequalities forced upon them. These museums were successful because they developed their focus, the lens through which they would interpret past and present, in the context of these areas. And by viewing this community context as the key component informing subject matter, programming, exhibits and more, by giving focus and voice to communities perceived to be “on the margins,” they underscored the shift of drawing from their surroundings rather than being an ivory fortress against them.

  12. Excellent points Trish. Your statement about how these museums were community based rather than collections really emphasizes what the modern museum needs to be. The success of these museum lies with their ability to connect to their intended audience with in such a profound way that the community feels comfortable within their walls. Because they address their community about their subject manner and what they want to see, they really set an example on how museums need to evolve.

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