Smaller mu­se­ums wary as D.C. gi­ant opens doors

At black in­sti­tu­tions, pride — and worry about com­pe­ti­tion

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Mary Ca­role McCauley

When the new Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture opens today on the Na­tional Mall, a cen­tury af­ter it was first pro­posed, it will be greeted by an out­pour­ing of joy.

The gleam­ing bronze be­he­moth stand­ing out amid a pha­lanx of white mar­ble will be ded­i­cated by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. A three-day free cel­e­bra­tion on the grounds of the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment will in­clude con­certs by Pub­lic En­emy, the Roots and Liv­ing Colour. The de­mand for ad­mis­sion to the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s 19th mu­seum is so great that en­trance passes have been snatched up through late Novem­ber. Mu­se­ums na­tion­wide are hold­ing spe­cial pro­grams com­mem­o­rat­ing the grand open­ing.

But that pride comes mixed with worry for some of the peo­ple run­ning Amer­ica’s cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions. Will the colos­sus siphon off re­sources that strug­gling African-Amer­i­can mu­se­ums need to sur­vive? Or could the deep pock­ets and un­paral- leled bar­gain­ing power of t he Smith­so­nian ac­tu­ally pro­pel the smaller black re­gional mu­se­ums into the spot­light?

“There’s been some con­cern for the past five or six years about the im­pact the na­tional mu­seum will have on the rest of us,” said Sa­muel Black, im­me­di­ate past pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of African Amer­i­can Mu­se­ums.

“As the open­ing grew closer, a num­ber of our mem­bers ex­pressed un­ease. Some fear they will lose col­lec­tions to the Smith­so­nian. Oth­ers are con­cerned about a pos­si­ble re­duc­tion in con­tri­bu­tions.

“Your Regi­nald Lewis mu­seum, be­ing the clos­est ma­jor mu­seum out­side the Smith­so­nian fam­ily, is go­ing to have to

ad­just.”

Un­til today, the 82,000-square­foot, black, yel­low and red build­ing on the cor­ner of Pratt and Pres­i­dent streets was the largest African-Amer­i­can mu­seum on the East Coast.

But the Regi­nald F. Lewis Mu­seum of Mary­land African Amer­i­can His­tory & Cul­ture has re­cently been show­ing signs of stress — and that was be­fore a new leviathan ex­pected to at­tract about 5 mil­lion vis­i­tors this year opened 40 miles away.

The Lewis’ at­ten­dance for the fis­cal year end­ing June 30, 2015, was 33,000, or less than a third of the 104,500 vis­i­tors dur­ing the mu­seum’s open­ing year.

That’s been a fac­tor in the mu­seum’s fail­ure to meet the state re­quire­ment that it raise $2 mil­lion an­nu­ally in pri­vate do­na­tions, or half its bud­get. The Lewis has met the man­dated sum just once, dur­ing the 2013-2014 fis­cal year. Each year, tax­pay­ers have made up the gap.

In its first decade, the Lewis has gone through a rapid se­ries of course ad­just­ments in an ef­fort to boost its au­di­ence. The mu­seum’s programming em­pha­sis shifted from pri­or­i­tiz­ing his­tory ex­hibits in 2005 to vis­ual arts ex­hibits in 2011, to con­tem­po­rary is­sues ear­lier this year. Now it ap­pears poised to re­po­si­tion it­self once again.

Bev­erly Cooper, chair­woman of the Lewis’ board of trustees, said last month that the fo­cus on mod­ern is­sues came at the cost of ne­glect­ing a mu­seum’s tra­di­tional role of chron­i­cling and pre­serv­ing the past.

“It took over a lit­tle bit,” she said of the Lewis’ fo­cus on such cur­rent con­tro­ver­sies as the death of Fred­die Gray. “We want to have a bal­ance.”

Cooper ac­knowl­edged that the ti­tan to the south, with its lo­ca­tion on the Na­tional Mall and celebrity sup­port­ers such as Oprah Win­frey, may prove for­mi­da­ble com­pe­ti­tion for vis­i­tors, ar­ti­facts and dol­lars.

“The board may be a lit­tle bit con­cerned that the new mu­seum could hurt us tem­po­rar­ily,” Cooper said.

“We don’t have the re­sources that the na­tional mu­seum has. They have ev­ery­thing. Any­time some­thing new comes along, peo­ple run to it. I’m sure that at­ten­dance for the first year es­pe­cially is go­ing to be through the roof. Even­tu­ally, it will slow down like it does for most mu­se­ums.”

Black said all in­sti­tu­tions spe­cial­iz­ing in Americana, and not just black mu­se­ums, face in­creased com­pe­ti­tion from the Smith­so­nian’s new­est mem­ber.

For in­stance, Black is di­rec­tor of African-Amer­i­can pro­grams for Penn­syl­va­nia’s largest his­tory mu­seum, the Sen­a­tor John Heinz His­tory Cen­ter. He said he was out­raged when he was asked to fa­cil­i­tate a gift to his in­sti­tu­tion’s well-stocked ri­val.

“Peo­ple have asked me to put them in touch with the Smith­so­nian be­cause they have a col­lec­tion they want to do­nate,” Black said. “I think that’s rude.

“I ask them, ‘What about giv­ing it to us?’ But they want the pres­tige, the ca­chet of get­ting a let­ter from the Smith­so­nian say­ing, ‘ Thank you for your do­na­tion.’”

Lon­nie Bunch III, the na­tional mu­seum’s new di­rec­tor, is keenly aware of the con­cerns.

His new mu­seum can put on view not quite 10 per­cent of its ar­ti­facts at any one time. The rest are stored in ware­houses and, he said, could po­ten­tially be loaned to mu­se­ums such as the Lewis.

“We felt that it was cru­cial to be a place of col­lab­o­ra­tion and part of a na­tional net­work of mu­se­ums ex­plor­ing the African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “We en­cour­age our vis­i­tors to go back and ex­plore their lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions.”

The odds are that at least some peo­ple will do as Bunch sug­gests; ac­cord­ing to a 2015 Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts re­port, the av­er­age art mu­seum visi­tor in 2012 made 2.7 trips, ei­ther to the same in­sti­tu­tion or a dif­fer­ent one.

Wanda Draper, the Lewis’ new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, is bank­ing on it.

“Peo­ple know what to ex­pect from an art mu­seum or from the In­ter­na­tional Spy Mu­seum,” she said. “But I don’t think they’ve known what to ex­pect from an African-Amer­i­can mu­seum.

“Defin­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence for fu­ture vis­i­tors has been a ma­jor chal­lenge for us. The more peo­ple learn about African-Amer­i­can mu­se­ums, the more com­fort­able they’ll be­come with ex­plor­ing us.”

One such avid mu­se­um­goer is Bal­ti­morean Gla­dys Mor­row, who fre­quently vis­its Bal­ti­more in­sti­tu­tions.

But the mu­seum clos­est to her heart will re­main the Lewis, which she vis­its monthly — and has since its in­cep­tion.

“I have been a fan of that mu­seum for some time,” she said.

A chal­lenge fac­ing all black mu­se­ums is that African-Amer­i­cans gen­er­ally at­tend mu­se­ums less fre­quently than do mem­bers of other racial groups.

Ac­cord­ing to the NEA re­port, 11.9 per­cent of African-Amer­i­cans vis­ited an art mu­seum at least once in 2012, and 13.1 per­cent vis­ited a his­toric site or land­mark. At­ten­dance rates for white peo­ple were about twice as high.

Un­less those de­mo­graphic pat­terns change, black mu­se­ums — even the one in Wash­ing­ton — will have to at­tract vis­i­tors from all racial groups to sur­vive.

That’s why the Smith­so­nian’s lead­ers have em­pha­sized that though the new mu­seum ex­am­ines his­tory and cul­ture through an African-Amer­i­can lens, it’s in­tended to help peo­ple of all races un­der­stand the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal forces shap­ing their lives.

“Our job is to ed­u­cate ev­ery­one about this im­por­tant part of Amer­i­can his­tory, not just be a pil­grim­age spot for AfricanAmer­i­cans,” Bunch said.

Bunch even is plan­ning joint “An­tiques Road­show”- style events around Amer­ica where he and the di­rec­tors of re­gional mu­se­ums can ex­am­ine the treasures that peo­ple have in their at­tics.

“We’ll tell peo­ple that they should give to their lo­cal mu­se­ums first,” he said.

But what if his cu­ra­tors stum­ble across a real prize, such as the life cast of Bal­ti­more mu­si­cian Eu­bie Blake’s hands cur­rently on dis­play in the new mu­seum?

“If it’s really cool,” Bunch said, “it’s com­ing back to D.C.”

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN PHO­TOS

This sculp­ture of Olympians Tom­mie Smith and John Carlos protest­ing on the podium in Mex­ico City in 1968 is among the ex­hibits fea­tured at the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, which opens today in Wash­ing­ton.

This life cast of Bal­ti­more-born mu­si­cian Eu­bie Blake’s hands is among the col­lec­tions at the new mu­seum.

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