National black history museum could spur interest locally
DETROIT (AP) — The dedication and official opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture won’t just be celebrated in Washington.
On Chicago’s South Side, it will be viewed during a free watch party Saturday at the 55-year-old DuSable Museum of African American History, one of the oldest museums of its kind. Officials there — and at other local and regional venues that offer more local stories on the struggles and contributions of blacks in the United States — expect the new national museum to spur interest and steer more visitors their way.
“It’s become an incredible opportunity in terms of raising awareness,” said Leslie Guy, chief curator at DuSable, where attendance dropped by nearly 20,000 visitors from 2014 to last year.
The dedication ceremony on Saturday at the $540 million museum on the National Mall is expected to be attended by President Barack Obama. Exhibits include a slave cabin from South Carolina, pieces of a slave ship, a reproduction of Oprah Winfrey’s television show set and artifacts from Obama’s first presidential campaign.
“There will be tens of thousands of people there in person and around the world watching,” said Andrea Taylor, president and chief executive of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama. “Once people have that experience they will want to know more about what’s happening in their local community.”
The Birmingham museum gets about 150,000 visitors per year. Annual attendance at the African American Museum in Philadelphia rose from about 70,000 to 82,000 last year.
Both could see even more guests as people seek to learn more about black history.
The audience that needs to see and hear the stories of African-American struggles and contributions “is large enough for all of us,” said Patricia Wilson Aden, president and chief executive of the Philadelphia museum. “It’s not a matter of one versus the other. It’s a matter of shared mission.”
The museums in Philadelphia and Birmingham are part of the Smithsonian community, which means they have the opportunity to share with the new museum and access its collection and other Smithsonian exhibits and items.
Smaller museums can benefit “if the local directors are savvy enough to take advantage of this moment,” said Farah Griffin, professor of English and African-American studies at Columbia University.
“The local museums don’t have the kinds of resources the national museum has, so it helps to really focus on something,” Griffin said. “They have to focus on their strengths ... tell a story in a way the national museum cannot.”
But some like the bigger stage a national museum can provide.
Shirley Burke considered donating a violin that’s more than 150 years old to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit before she and her family decided it deserved a larger audience and greater appreciation.
The violin was passed down through generations after being played by her great-grandfather, Jesse Burke, for his slave owners in Arkansas.
“Giving to the national museum will make it more visible and accessible to family members located all around the United States,” said Burke, 73, a former administrator and teacher in Detroit’s public schools.
The national museum — like local African-American history venues — has its place, said Juanita Moore, Charles H. Museum president and chief executive.
“African-American history is American history and it should be (in Washington),” Moore said. “I’m so proud that the beautiful edifice is there. It makes people excited about the stories we’re telling.”