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.”  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.”  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.
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.”  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.
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.  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.
 Andrea A. Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 2.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 93.
Featured: Children at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Children_at_Anacostia_Neighborhood_Museum.jpg
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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exhibit_TheRat_-_Man%27s_Invited_Affliction.jpg