Saturday, August 04, 2001

Black museums gain momentum


African-American museums, like the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, are on the rise nationally

By Earnest Winston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Curator Toilynn O'Neal sees the Cincinnati Arts Consortium's African American Museum as a “quiet treasure” nestled in the Cincinnati Museum Center.

        “The treasure in us is that a lot of people have underestimated the contributions of what African-Americans have done for this city. But people are aware that we're here now,” Ms. O'Neal said, citing increasing interest and crowds, and expanding exhibits inside the more than 3,000-square-foot museum, which opened in 1993.

        The museum expects to grow, says Jerry Denges, chief financial officer for the Cincinnati Arts Consortium.

[photo] Toilynn O'Neal, curator of the Cincinnati Arts Consortium's African American Museum, said interest in the museum has increased.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's part of a surge nationwide in statues and museums concentrating on African-American culture and history. As the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center prepares to open in Cincinnati in 2004, at least nine such projects are in various stages in cities such as Louisville; Indianapolis; and Washington, D.C.

        Experts say the growth is primarily the result of grass-roots efforts and a rise in consciousness among African-Americans, as well as attempts to correct past inequities and educate people about an African-African experience that historically has been sparsely represented in mainstream museums.

Unprecedented growth
        Rita Organ, president of the Association of African-American Museums, which has more than 200 members, says she has never seen a surge like the current one. Her organization has been around since the 1960s.

        “This is a serious wave,” says Ms. Organ, also manager for exhibits and programs at the Freedom Center. “We haven't seen a surge like this ever. There's never been this many projects at one time functioning and trying to get established.”

        This surge comes after failures of African-American museums in other cities that were founded with more enthusiasm than expertise.

IN THE WORKS
   As the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center prepares to open in Cincinnati in 2004, similar projects are in the planning stages:
   • Indianapolis: An interactive museum will feature arts, music and cultural information about blacks in Indiana.
   • Washington, D.C.: National African-American history museum and a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial are proposed for The Mall.
   • Louisville: Muhammad Ali Center, an interactive educational institution, and the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage are to open in late 2003.
        And even the older African-American museums that are openhave to deal with a lack of space for exhibits, as well as the lack of staff and resources that would allow them to remain open as regularly as officials would like. Reliance on volunteers and smaller budgets are also hindrances.
       

Setting record straight
        Among the more successful projects is the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit. Many of these museums exist because of grass-roots pressure applied by mostly African-Americans, says Dr. Keith Griffler, assistant professor in the department of African-American studies at the University of Cincinnati.

        “We have to keep in mind the peoples whose struggles have gone on for decades. Once you get a large institution with a lot of money behind it and with a congressional bill sponsoring it, it's easy to lose sight of those people who kept the flame alive when the nation at large was ignoring the issue,” Dr. Griffler said.

        The UC professor says the growing number of African-American museums reflects efforts to deal with historical inequities.

        “As we've begun to progress from the 1960s to where we are today, secondary types of issues have come up,” Dr. Griffler says. “Things like setting the historical record straight, including African-Americans in the narrative of our nation's history.”

        U.S. Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and J.C. Watts, R-Okla., introduced legislation this year to create a national African-American history museum on The Mall in Washington. The museum, which would be part of the Smithsonian Institution, would be a repository for African-American history, including exhibits on slavery, the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil-rights movement.

        The legislation could be voted on when lawmakers return in the fall from recess.

        A second project in Washington is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, led by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. The organization, which expects the memorial to cost “tens of millions” of dollars, has until November 2003 to break ground.

        A prominent site on The Mall has been approved by the National Capital Planning Commission for the memorial. The memorial will be the first on The Mall to commemorate an African-American.

        In Indianapolis, organizers are planning an interactive black history museum that features arts, music and other cultural information about the history of blacks in Indiana.

        Joyce Q. Rogers, chief operating officer for Indiana Black Expo, the organization leading the museum project, said a feasibility study is being prepared.

        “We're working with the city of Indianapolis, which is very receptive to the idea,” she says.

        In Louisville, the Muhammad Ali Center, an interactive educational institution to promote peace, is scheduled to open in late 2003. To date, $32 million has been raised and organizers say $60 million is needed to start construction. They also need to raise an additional $20 million for operating costs.

        Clest Lanier, executive director of Kentucky's African American Heritage Foundation, said the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage is scheduled to open in Louisville in 2003.

        Ms. Lanier said the project will be the first museum of its type in Kentucky. The $23 million, 19,000-square-foot project will include an exhibit gallery focusing on 250 years of blacks' contributions in Kentucky and a resource center linking African-American research institutions across the country.

        Supporters stress that the African-American museums are for everybody.

        “Many of the museums that were founded 20 and 30 years ago — they were solely for the purpose of African-American audiences so that we could see our own history and see ourselves,” Ms. Organ said.

        “But now in the era of reality and funding, you can't afford to do that. The sentiments of the people leading all of these projects is that they want the visitors to be everyone ... and to place African-American history within the context of American history. And that's what most of these museums are doing.”
       

       



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