A Close Reading of “From Storefront to Monument: Tracing The Public History of the Black Museum Movement”

 

     From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement by Andrea Burns examines four different museums from across varied urban locals, that were founded and run by African Americans. Each of these museums were a piece of a narrative of expressing black history, that during the 1960’s was simply not presented in mainstream museums. The alienation of this audience in public history spheres inspired many to create new museums. This book chronicles the dedicated efforts of the volunteers and activists that were the leading voice to establish a presence for African-American history within their local communities.

One aspect of the text that I found interesting was how powerful and impactful these museums’ community outreach methods had. One of the early examples of this was the DuSable’s museum’s call for donations, mainly of ordinary objects, from the local community, “Artifacts of African American history—whether photo- graphs or manumission papers or quilts—were in fact objects of immense power, worthy of inclusion in a museum”[1] This affirmation of the importance of African-American history was a method of engaging with an audience that had been so excluded in other museums. Another example of this outreach was the popularization of the “mobile museum” in Detroit with the International Afro-African American Museum. Andrea Burns notes that, “by bringing the mobile museum to churches, schools, and other community centers throughout Detroit, the museum exposed Detroit’s school- children, as well as older audiences, to a new and accessible interpretation of African American history and culture.”[2] This impact of the community outreach across numerous groups of an audience, speaks to the power the spread of information and cultural history has. Another example of this kind of outreach was in the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, with The Rat exhibit which was the museum’s way of tackling a relevant issue of the local community, and the use of the museum as an educational resource to the public. “Accordingly, when visitors arrived at the museum in November 1969, they found panels on the history of rat infestation…and learned about pest control”[3]  This kind of methodology for exhibit presentation and creation was something that was innovative at the time.

Community engagement was an element that was vitally important for the African-American Museum of Philadelphia, given its physical distance and inaccessibility to the local African-American community. However, unlike the other museums, the African-American Museum of Philadelphia was entrenched in local politics from its beginnings and struggled to define itself in the early years of its establishment. “In the case of both the African American Museum of Philadelphia and Detroit’s Museum of African American History inaccessible…or absent archives detracted from the primary mission of African American museums-namely to educate and serve their audiences”[4] These concepts of the museums relation to audience and social obligation tied to communities are some of the same discussions found in Amy Tyson’s ethnography “Crafting Emotional Comfort: Interpreting the Painful Past at Living History Museums in the New Economy.” This theme of audience and its importance has been a continued discussion, and in the case of these museums especially the role museums have inclusion and audience.

[1] Burns, Andrea A. “CONFRONTING THE “TYRANNY OF RELEVANCE”: Exhibits and the Politics of Representation.” In From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, 72-105. University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vk1qr.7Pg 22

[2] Ibid., Pg 84

[3] Ibid., 94

[4] Ibid., pg 123