Before Their Times; The Community Roles of African American Museums

In our introduction to public history class today we discussed the historic and current issues with African American museums based on our reading of From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement by Andrea Burns. This book helped shed light upon the problematic restructuring of neighborhoods pushing out lower-income residents and in turn their cultural institutions. Museums struggle to find a middle ground between accessibility and the ability to be an aspect of the community. African American museums originally function as a de facto community center. They served as a safe space for community events and spaces for those who may have no other space to socialize, like the elderly. It was a space more about community relations and an investigation of one’s culture rather than a deep dive into historical analysis. It would be a safe space for those who ran these museums would frequently be community leaders compared to classically trained historians. These museums, however, struggle with accessibility and serve a very niche audience that can be disrupted by gentrification projects. These community shifts can be traumatic for museums that are so deeply rooted in the day to day lives of individuals who are then being pushed out of their homes. A compounding problem would be lack of funding that these institutions receive from non-community members due to the difficulty in accessing them. If people can’t get to the museum easily the less visitation and therefore less revenue. When the proposing the construction of the black history museum in Philadelphia activist clamored for it to be constructed in North Philadelphia. There it could both be associated with the community it is representing and bring in tourist dollars to African American business people. African American museums were arguably one of the first museums to promote the kind of community association that is now at the forefront of good public history practices. A connection to the surrounding community is something many institutions are now striving very hard to achieve.

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