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  • Of the People
  • Christopher Clarke-Hazlett (bio)

“Of the People: The African American Experience,” 16,000 sq. ft. core exhibition at the Museum of African American History, 315 East Warren Avenue, Detroit, MI 48201-1443. Kimberly Camp, President. Ralph Appelbaum Associates, exhibit designers. Open 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.


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Figure 1.

The entrance to the Museum of African American History in Detroit, adorned by brass and sculpted African masks. © Glen Calvin Moon.

Just inside the massive and striking brass doors that mark the entrance to Detroit’s new Museum of African American History (fig. 1), a large plaque announces the museum’s mission statement:

The museum of African American History is established to provide a nurturing environment for the celebration of African American achievement in the arts, sciences, literature, politics, labor, and philosophy.

The museum’s new core exhibition, “Of the People: The African American Experience,” is faithful to that mission, and therein lie both the strengths and the weaknesses of this most recent effort to create a comprehensive museum exhibition about African American history.


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Figure 2.

Local students posed for the figures of enslaved Africans, who occupy the center section of a recreated slave ship in “Of the People” at the Museum of African American History. © Glen Clavin Moon.


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Figure 3.

Local students posed for the figures of enslaved Africans, who occupy the center section of a recreated slave ship in “Of the People” at the Museum of African American History. © Glen Clavin Moon.

“Of the People” follows the latest high-profile trends in museum exhibitry, incorporating the most recent scholarship on black history. 1 In addition to text, graphics, and objects, the exhibit effectively employs audio and video technology. The centerpiece of the exhibit—a stylized recreation of a slave ship that showcases realistic body castings of young Detroit-area African Americans as Africans enduring the Middle Passage—is powerful theater that moves and engages the audience (figs. 2 and 3). Ultimately, however, the exhibit succeeds more as theater than history [End Page 426] and frequently chooses celebration over critical inquiry. The dilemma that confronted the exhibit’s creators is the same as the one currently confronting many public historians (and some academic historians as well): how to affirm the value and the struggles of past generations of African Americans without sacrificing the complexity of lived history and without ignoring or obscuring the deep, sometimes bitter conflicts that arose among black people who were otherwise united in resistance to racism and oppression.

Visitors to the African American Museum enter a large, airy, splendidly designed rotunda capped by a three-story glass and masonry dome. Underneath the dome (and beneath the visitors’ feet) lies a large (37-foot diameter), colorful, visually arresting terrazzo tile floor mural that depicts struggle, created by local African American artist Hubert Massey. Another local black artisan, Richard Bennett, executed the museum’s splendid brass doors as well as two ten-foot-high aluminum and steel masks that hang above the museum entrances. These memorable aesthetic statements, along with the interior use of decorative symbols drawn from “the shared heritage of people of African descent” (the lizard, the pyramid, and a sphere surrounded by circles) imbue the space with a powerful physical sense of African American identity. [End Page 428]


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Figure 4.

Overhead screens at the entrance to “Of the People” show an introductory video that highlights African American heroes and accomplishments. A recreated slave ship extends from both sides of the center walkway. © Glen Clavin Moon.

Dazzled by this visual feast, the visitor enters the adjacent large exhibit hall to encounter an introductory audio-visual program displayed on three huge projection screens mounted high above the exhibit entrance (fig. 4). The video’s focus on heroes, achievement, and struggles is a good match for the exhibit that follows, and its images constitute an evocative beginning. Beyond the entrance, visitors find a more predictable museum environment, notable less for its distinctive design than for its familiar institutional aesthetic of clean...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 426-436
Launched on MUSE
1999-06-01
Open Access
No
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