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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is well known. It’s also well-funded, comprehensive in scope and located in the heart of the nation’s capital—and this is all good! But there are more than 100 African American museums and cultural centers throughout the United States that don’t receive as much attention. Most are smaller in scale and regionally focused—and some are doing better than others during this time of pandemic. Many face disparities in funding, especially when compared to their larger counterparts: the bigger history, art, and science museums located in their respective towns and cities.
But experience and exhibition designers can help! How? By designing engaging experiences for these museums and cultural institutions which will attract the public’s attention and bring African American museums to the forefront of peoples’ consciousness—and, in the process, attract the attention of funders and donors, too.
Contributor Franck Mercurio writes about these five examples:
Freedom Rides Museum
What better place to tell the story of the Freedom Riders—those who fought, non-violently, against racial segregation in the 1960s—than the Greyhound bus depot in Montgomery, Alabama. It was here, in May 1961, that a white mob attacked a group of Tennessee college students, both black and white, who had challenged the segregated seating common on buses in many Southern states at that time.
Today, the Greyhound station now houses the Freedom Rides Museum in downtown Montgomery. A series of panels wraps around the exterior of the building, documenting the momentous events of 1961 which helped bring an end to segregation. Ralph Appelbaum Associates created these first displays in 2008. Three years later, on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders’ arrival in Montgomery, the interior of the building was opened to visitors, hosting a series of traveling exhibitions over the next decade.
But what about a permanent exhibition inside the Freedom Rides Museum?
“We wanted to do something to really elevate the museum’s visitor experience. We got a grant from the National Park Service in 2018, and Appelbaum signed-on and gave us a fantastic museum exhibition plan,” says Dorothy Walker, Director of the Freedom Rides Museum. “It is amazing what they were able to plan, because we’re talking about 2,500 square feet of space. So, we’re not a large museum—really only 1,800 square feet of exhibition space.”
But the grant only paid for the exhibition plan, and not the installation of the exhibition itself. The problem is that the museum cannot do their own fundraising because they are a state-run institution; however, a non-profit group called Friends of the Freedom Rides Museum is working to raise these funds.
How then will the museum commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Riders in May?
“The most exciting thing that will happen this year is the restored Greyhound bus,” says Walker. “A few years ago, the Greyhound Bus Museum in Minnesota gave us a bus. It will be a really good way for us to help to tell the story.”
The vintage bus will be parked in front of the Freedom Rides Museum and will display a suitcase exhibit developed by 1220 Exhibits Inc. of Nashville and Relative Scale or Raleigh (for audio). Inside the building, the museum will present a 3-D video showing how the bus station went from segregated to integrated—which will highlight not just the journey of the civil rights movement, but also the journey of the building itself.
DuSable Museum of African American History
What a difference a year makes.
In February 2020, Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History premiered “The March,” a virtual reality experience that places visitors at the famous 1963 March on Washington while seeing and hearing Martin Luther King give his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Designed by SEGD member firm, Local Projects, “The March” was commissioned by TIME and executive produced by Academy Award-winning actor, Viola Davis.
“What’s unique about this experience is that you’re in it, you’re not listening to it, you are in it,” said Davis in a Chicago Sun-Times article from February 2020. “You’re looking into Dr. King’s eyes, and there is a point where you are listening to that speech for the very first time.”
Founded in 1961 by Dr. Margaret Burroughs, historian and teacher, the DuSable celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood—near the University of Chicago and the site of the upcoming Obama Presidential Center—the museum “is dedicated to the collection, documentation, preservation and study of the history and culture of Africans and African Americans.”
The DuSable is named for Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a man from Haiti with African and French ancestry, who in 1798 established a trading post where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan, the location of the city of Chicago today.
“Chicago has always been an epicenter of civil rights leadership, and the DuSable is proud to be the premier location for ‘The March,’” said Perri Irmer, the DuSable’s President & CEO, in the same Sun-Times article. “To be able to experience Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington in this state-of-the-art virtual reality exhibit is an amazing opportunity, especially for our young.”
But then COVID hit, and the DuSable closed its doors to the public, less than 3 weeks after “The March” premiered at the museum.
“Ironically, ‘The March’ opened on February 26, and we had to shut down on March 14—just weeks later,” Irmer said in a CBS interview from September 2020.
And the DuSable still remains closed, although the museum was able to celebrate its 60th anniversary—virtually— this past February.
Currently, “The March” is not yet scheduled to travel to any new venues, but an online version is available on the TIME website.
Weeksville Heritage Center
New York, New York
In the 1830s, a group of African American investors bought farmland in what is today urban Brooklyn, about four miles east of what was then Brooklyn’s downtown business district. Here the landowners, including stevedore James Weeks, founded the town of Weeksville and established their own schools, churches, and businesses—all African American.
“So much of what we tend to learn about Black history is a sort of catalogue of wrongs that have been overcome by Black people in this country—and that’s all valid history—and it should be known,” said Rob Fields, former Executive Director of Weeksville Heritage Center in a recent PBS interview. “Weeksville is the flip side of that. It is a story of self-sufficiency and self-determination and entrepreneurship.”
What began as a free community of color during pre-Civil War days evolved into a self-reliant urban Black neighborhood in Brooklyn which thrived for more than 100 years. But after WWII it became “all but forgotten” according to the Weeksville Heritage Center’s official history. With urban development came new roads and buildings which replaced many of Weeksville’s historic homes and structures.
Rediscovery happened in the 1960s by a group of neighborhood activists. Four original Weeksville residences had survived, and soon, the Weeksville Heritage Society was founded in 1968. The vintage structures were eventually restored and designated as New York City landmarks (1970) and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1971-1972).
In 2014, Caples Jefferson Architects designed a contemporary new Education and Cultural Arts Building to host visitors.
“From the outset, it was agreed that the new construction was to be at the southern and eastern edges of the site, farthest from the historic houses,” says writer John Morris Dixon in an article for Architecture magazine, “leaving a swath of open landscape to represent their original rural setting.”
Designed by Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architects, the outdoor space between the Center and the historic homes serves as an environmentally responsible organic farm, helping communities in food deserts. The light-filled building is LEED Gold-certified and features a gallery, performance space, research center, and educational facilities.
Together, the vintage houses, the Center and the landscape create an outdoor museum celebrating the neighborhood which began as one of the country’s first free Black communities.
And yet despite its successes, the Weeksville Heritage Center is not exempt from the financial pressures that many African American institutions face today. According to Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham (in her PBS series On Display) Weeksville nearly closed its doors in 2019.
“These challenges are not unique to Weeksville,” says Fields. “There have been many reports about the disparities in investment by the philanthropic community to institutions of color.”
Answering this challenge, Fields began a grassroots crowdsourcing campaign that raised over $700,000. Weeksville also became the first new member of the city’s Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) in over 20 years. The CIGs are a cohort of 34 cultural institutions that have permanent line items in the New York City budget furthering the financial stability of the institution well into the future.
International African American Museum
Charleston, South Carolina
It is difficult for us, today, to imagine what a harrowing and traumatic experience the Transatlantic Slave Trade was for the thousands of people who were kidnapped from their homeland, imprisoned within the hulls of ships, and sent across the ocean to be enslaved in a foreign land.
But it happened.
And Charleston, South Carolina, received the most enslaved people from Africa, more than any other American city during pre-Civil War times.
“Charleston, South Carolina, was the single greatest point of entry in America for African captives,” says Dr. Elijah Heyward, the COO of the new International African American Museum. “The site of our museum honors the African American Journey as one that is central to the American experience.”
When it opens in 2022, the International African American Museum (IAAM) will present this history and explore the cultures of the African captives and the achievements of their descendants in America. Its stated mission: “To honor the untold stories of the African American journey at one of our country’s most sacred sites.”
Designed by Moody Nolan and Pei Cobb Freed Architects with exhibits designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the IAAM will do more than document the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It will also connect visitors to today “with dynamic exhibits featuring historic figures, events, and experiences from slavery through the 20th-century civil rights movement and into the present,” according to the International African American Museum’s website.
In addition to its exhibits, the IAAM will also include a memorial garden, a family research center and virtual programming.
“Our visitor experience is buttressed by our African Ancestors Memorial Garden, designed by MacArthur Genius Award recipient Walter Hood, our museum’s permanent collection, and our center for family history,” says Heyward. “We are excited to also activate the visitor experience through online accessibility and programming that will inspire and interpret the profound narratives we present.”
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Designed by Bora Architects of Portland, Oregon with Blackburn Associates of Indianapolis, Indiana, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in 2004 and is one of the largest museums showcasing African American history outside of Washington, DC. One focal point is a restored 1830s log “slave pen” from Mason County, Kentucky. When in use, before the Civil War, the structure served as a one-room prison where enslaved peoples were held captive before being sold and transported to new owners. It’s a powerful symbol illustrating the pursuit of freedom in this Freedom Center.
Located on the Ohio River—between the Southern and Northern states—Cincinnati was a significant stop on the Underground Railroad, a network of abolitionists who helped guide African American people in their journey from the Southern slave states to the Northern free states and eventually to Canada in the times before the Civil War.
But the Freedom Center does more than chronicle this historic narrative from America’s past; it also bridges the past and present by exploring what it means to be free in today’s global societies.
“The Freedom Center is about freedom,” contends Cody Hefner, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Freedom Center. “It’s not a museum about slavery and people escaping from slavery. It’s a museum about freedom and people pursuing freedom.”
The Freedom Center connects the past with the present through traveling exhibitions, events and programming, many of which were curtailed because of the pandemic and attendance loss when the Freedom Center was closed for several months. But, even facing these challenges, the museum continues to document and present research in areas such as implicit bias and social justice (including forced labor, sex trafficking and human trafficking) which affect all of us around the world.
“That’s what the Freedom Center is really founded upon. The past informs the present and fuels the future,” says Hefner. “So, when we talk about the Underground Railroad, it is the original social justice movement. And the principles that guided it—the perseverance, the courage it took, the cooperation that was required for success—all of this still applies today.”
Unlike some of the other museums in this article, the Freedom Center is comparatively well funded. Supporters include the United States Department of Education, Google and Procter & Gamble. (Although COVID has dramatically reduced the museum’s attendance in 2020.)
But many other African American museums have been challenged by a lack of funding.
“I think the important message for people is that there are many incredible black and brown institutions out there,” says Rob Fields of Weeksville. “Find the institution that you care about and give them money because they need it.”
And as designers and fabricators, we can all help by providing the best and most engaging experiences to bring these narratives to life and generate more public interest—and support—in African American museums and culture centers.