Black Museums and Cultural Producers Are Reimagining Outreach in a Time of Economic Uncertainty

By Ayanna Carrington and Sophia V. Nelson

In February, most of the country went into quarantine as a result of the pandemic. We quickly saw what a national shutdown did to our economy as it forced many brick and mortar businesses to close their doors and send their staff and employees home. From restaurants to malls, many businesses had to close without a definite end in sight.

Along with them, our museums and culture sites had to halt as well. We’ve watched from our homes as businesses started to struggle without a source of income due to halted foot traffic. No patrons, meant no source of income for a lot of venues and facilities, especially those that are Black owned. In June of this year, Fortune magazine released a piece by Rey Mashayekhi, “Why are Black-owned businesses twice as likely to close during the pandemic?” highlighting how the pandemic exacerbated systemic racism issues for businesses. The small bailout initiative rollout, showed a disproportionate amount of relief not going to Black businesses even in areas where it showed a high density of BB’s eligible to receive it.

A few weeks ago, it was announced that one of Georgia’s Black history museums, “Sights & Sounds Black Culture Expo Museum”  would be closing. Sights & Sounds, which found its home in North DeKalb Mall, became a landmark.

2017 VisitBlackHistory.com interview with James Horton of Sights & Sounds Black Cultural Expos Museum

Founded in 2014 by James Horton, Mr. Horton (a retired Morehouse employee) never had to charge admission and was solely able to operate the space as a result of donations. Now, in 2020 without the foot traffic and donors, the museum is looking for a new home to house its thousands of artifacts and relics.

The DuSable Museum of African American History, named after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable has shared that they are committed to reimagining how to serve its audience. Although admittedly used to operating on a “shoestring budget,” Perri Irmer, DuSable Museum President and CEO says, “the task of modernization is made more difficult by unequal funding of public institutions.”

“These huge disparities in funding are reflective of decades of unfair distribution of public resources, the effects of which are cumulative, in both directions,” Irmer said. “The rich get richer and the poor poorer, even as our work impacts a broader segment of the population, especially in our neighborhoods that are suffering so deeply on so many levels.” (Source: WBEZ, Chicago’s npr Newsource)

There is growth occurring within the field. Black History spaces, tourism offices, historians, and everyday people are producing digital content to stay connected with their audiences. Destination DC recently produced and published the Civil Rights DC Virtual Itinerary. Available for download at no cost, users are encouraged to spend 4-days taking in a curated list of digital DC Black History experiences. The virtual itinerary includes a list of digital experiences produced by places like George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Frederick Douglass House, National Portrait Gallery, the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum just to name a few.

Other advancements include the movement to increase the amount of African-Americans working in Black History related careers. Just yesterday, a George Washington University professor admitted that she has been falsely claiming to be of African-American descent. According to a story published by The Guardian, George Washington University professor Jessica A. Krug received financial support from institutions like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This is revealed in a time when Black institutions, organizations, and professionals are fighting to get the resources needed to sustain careers in the history and public history sector. A response to this challenge are organizations like the Society of Black Archaeologists and the Greening Youth Foundation. Both organizations are committed to engaging underrepresented youth and emerging professionals, connecting participants with professional development opportunities in conservation, archaeology, and history-related professions.

Then we have stories like the Carver Museum in Austin, Texas which has entered the planning phase for expansion. A project that has been 22 years in the making moves forward with their planned additions to the Carver Museum in East Austin, Texas. The Washington Carver Museum, Cultural, and Genealogy Center serves as a repository for historical and cultural materials related to Austin, Texas, and Travis County’s African-American history. Planned additions to the museum include improvements to outdoor spaces as well as indoor art studio spaces and expanded community programming. This demonstrates that there are Black museums with the plan and to sustain and serve their publics.

While we are aware of the issues, we here at VisitBlackHistory.com are focused on current and long term solutions for how we can best support and in some cases save our Black History spaces? Black museums and historic sites are just a few of the Black institutions that have had to make a dramatic pivot in response to the pandemic. The financial ruin has presented itself concurrently at a time (alongside the public outcry against Police Brutality) when the roles of these cultural institutions are more essential than ever. We can’t allow them to disappear as they tell the story of our existence. So what should we do? Below you will find a few suggestions on how to support Black History spaces and content producers now:

  1. Attend online programming. Black History spaces and content producers are producing a wealth of online digital content. Send us an email, letting us know of the online programming you are participating in, so we can share that information with the VisitBlackHistory.com community.
  2. Become a friend of a museum. Your generous donation, some starting as low as $25, could also earn you special member benefits. See if your local Black History or art museum has membership and individual giving opportunities.
  3. If you are a community organizer, consider how your work may relate to the work being performed by organizations like the Society of Black Archaeologists. See if there is an opportunity to collaborate or even have representatives engage with your audience as a guest speaker. Collaborate and make magic happen!
  4. Volunteer. Even in the age of social distancing, there is still a need for volunteers. Volunteers should think of how they can support the production of digital experiences (blog writing, data entry, social media management, graphic design are a few ideas that come to mind).

How are you supporting Black History spaces? Share your story for a chance to win a VisitBlackHistory.com swag bag. Winning entries will have their testimony published. Be sure to include photos and videos along with your written response. Send to info@visitblackhistory.com.


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