Keeping Black History and Art Alive, Even While Museum Doors Are Closed

Just as other attractions around the world have shut down to control the spread of a vicious virus, African-American museums have been forced to close because of COVID-19, but an industry association is taking steps to ensure they reopen and remain sustainable.

“Our ancestors give us so much wisdom, if we only listen,” said LaNesha DeBardelaben, board president for the Association of African American Museums (AAAM). “We represent the voice and the spirit, the art, the lives of our ancestors. So, it is necessary that Black museums thrive…even in the midst of a pandemic.”

AAAM was established 42 years ago to advocate for African-American and African-focused museums and professionals who support them. The current pandemic has made that mission more critical than ever.

“We are really focused on ensuring that AAAM associations, and the collective body of African American museums around the country are financially strong, sustainable and solvent during this unprecedented public health pandemic,” added DeBardelaben, who resides in Seattle and is executive director of the Northwest African American Museum.

Based in Washington, D.C., AAAM has more than 500 members with institutional museums whose annual operating

budgets range from $25,000 to more than $1 million.

“It was extremely critical for AAAM to provide what the field needs at this time, an avenue for collaboration and convening, for conversation and self-care for Black museum leaders, for information and networking, DeBardelaben said. “It was an urgent need that was unmet when this crisis hit us.”

AAAM’s executive director, Vedet Coleman-Robinson, explained some hardships museums are facing during the lockdowns ordered to control the pandemic.

“Some members were losing upwards of $25,000 the first week that they closed,” Coleman-Robinson. “They had to make really hard decisions on whether they would furlough their staff or fire their staff and have them lose insurance, because if they kept them on, they could not receive unemployment.”

AAAM leadership organized the COVID-19 Regional Leadership Conversation Initiative via monthly webinars on Zoom for museum presidents, CEOs and executive directors. DeBardelaben said the series “takes a deep-dive, conversationally, into the issues that matter for Black museums at this time.” The focus is on the three most immediate needs: fundraising, maintaining staff and member engagement/member advocacy.

Each month, guest speakers and specialists share information and tools to help the museums rebuild and sustain. April began with the topic of fundraising and managing finances. Presenters included Anna Barber, president and principal consultant of Barber & Associates, LLC, D.C. (Barber was a lead fundraising consultant on the opening of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture). Others were Sharron Rose, chief financial officer of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Michigan, and Robert Bull, president of The Compass Group, Maryland.

In May, the topic is “Thriving as Leaders during a Time of Crisis,” presented by the following experts:

  • Althemese Barnes, director emeritus of the John G. Riley Museum, Florida

  • Kathe Hambrick, former AAAM president and founding director of the River Roads Museum, Louisiana

  • Juanita Moore, former AAAM president and director emeritus of the Wright Museum, Michigan

  • Dr. John Fleming, former AAAM president and director emeritus of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Ohio

  • Beverly Robertson, former AAAM secretary a director emeritus of the National Civil Rights Museum, Tennessee

  • Amina Dickerson, former AAAM secretary and director emeritus of the DuSable Museum, Illinois

  • Dr. Lawrence Pijeaux, former AAAM president and director emeritus of the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, Alabama

June’s focus will be “Exemplary Virtual Programming,” pivoting to high-quality virtual programming while museums are closed, coupled with strategies for reopening with speakers to be determined.

AAAM is partnering with other museum organizations to gain support from elected officials on the federal level and providing members with resources to advocate individually on the state, county and city levels. The goal is to elevate their collective and individual voices to funders, donors, the federal government, corporations and the community to continue investing in, and preserving these institutions.

Coleman-Robinson, who has been involved with AAAM since 2004, said shifting the leaders’ perspective has also helped the member institutions to pivot.

“It’s kind of serendipitous,” she said. “It sucks that you can’t be in your bricks and mortar right now, right? The light at the end of the tunnel, kind of, is being able to flip it just a little bit to virtual spaces and doing things where you can still show your members, your supporters, and the community your relevance.”

To that point, AAAM institutions have a new opportunity to collaborate with Timelooper, which provides virtual reality “time travel” experiences of museums and other attractions. It is offering one year of its services to AAAM members for free to allow their online visitors to explore their sites.

Several Black museums from coast to coast are joining forces to host a cross-collaborative national Juneteenth commemoration to be held virtually on June 19, 2020, focusing on justice, freedom, and the vote. The relevance of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments will be highlighted, and the virtual day will feature cultural performances from Africa and across America. Amendment readings by nationally renowned leaders, discussions by major Black studies scholars, interactive read-along story time for children and more.

A variety of Black museums are hosting various upcoming virtual programs:

  • The Black Archives of Miami has launched Virtual Field Trips on Fridays during the closure.

  • California African American Museum in Los Angeles is offering a Self-Care: Yoga on Zoom session on May 30.

  • Northwest African American Museum of Seattle has launched a Virtual Book Club.The next two discussions are May 29 and June 26.

Coleman-Robinson confirmed that thus far, none of AAAM institutional members have been forced to sell any part of their collection, as some museums are doing, to stay afloat. To make sure that they will not, she said everyone can play a part in keeping Black museums vibrant, even while closed.

“Right now, the biggest thing would be donating to AAAM or donating to your favorite Black museum,” she said. “We know that President Barack Obama’s campaigns really flourished from $5, $10, $20 donations.”

Other ways to help include purchasing a ticket to an event even if it has been canceled, buying from a museum’s online gift store, or giving to the endowment.

Coleman-Robinson said if financial support is not an option, elevating the presence of local Black museums, like following them on social media, sharing their content and encouraging others to do the same is also helpful. Additionally, she said having local celebrities provide pro-bono commercials could also assist with increasing visibility.

“They can put the content out, but if nobody is liking, following or pushing it forward for them…everybody needs a street team,” she added.

As some jurisdictions begin to ease pandemic restrictions, DeBardelaben said Black museums are following local guidelines. She agreed that everyone’s support is crucial.

“African-American history and African-American art are American history and American art,” DeBardelaben said. “So, it is essential that all of our museums come out of this pandemic resilient and ready, and that greater support comes to African American museums. This is about history, but it’s about so much more. It’s about quality of life. It’s about life itself. That’s what Black museums are about, helping us to get to our best selves.”

– Chianti C. Cleggett