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  • The State of Black Museums
  • Deborah L. Mack and John S. Welch

This issue of The Public Historian commemorates the fortieth anniversary (1978–2018) of the African American Museum Association (AAMA), known today as the Association of African American Museums (AAAM). The oldest Black museums date some 150 years ago following emancipation (Hampton University is observing the sesquicentennial of its 1868 founding), with an exponential growth in the latter twentieth century leading to more than two hundred presently documented.

In creating their own organizations and institutions, African Americans historically have developed ways to address both needs and aspirations that fostered values of community, service, and mutual support. In this vein, museums were among the institutions established to both serve Black communities and serve as vehicles for social change.

For the past 150 years Black museums have demonstrated solidifying their value as critical cultural resources for communities across the United States and beyond. The essays in this volume reflect the distinctive arc of Black museum historical development in a country historically shaped by slavery, legally and socially enforced Jim Crow, and organizational apartheid for much of its history. Black museum professionals labor even now to identify and eliminate the socioeconomic and political vestiges of this legacy that endure and that present themselves in addressing issues around memory, voice/s, subject matter, audiences, equitable access to resources, professional development and leadership, and organizational stability.

This volume provides both essays and case studies that identify important issues, perspectives, and resources that illustrate the diversity of development in Black museums from their earliest origins through today. Despite the presence of two hundred museums, in the United States and abroad, the arc of the history, mission, and practice of Black museums in the United States remains largely unknown in both the larger public history and museum studies fields. In early 2017 the guest editors of this special issue convened a working group that included academics, museum professionals, practitioners and preservationists to discuss the current state of Black museums. There was broad recognition that museum professionals [End Page 9] and others engaged in pubic history and public culture, both emerging professionals and those with longstanding experience, could greatly benefit from an accessible publication illustrating both historical and contemporary practice. The resulting volume therefore addresses a range of museum topics: the historical development of these institutions; the role of the politics of race around professional, cultural, and organizational practice; changes over time in audience development and engagement; the nature of twenty-first century globalizing influences. Because of the dearth of accessible literature on Black museums, and the scarcity of this literature in many museum studies curricula, this volume includes a research bibliography organized around strategic topics in the literature.

Founding generations of Black museum leaders recognized the need for collective effort and voice, collective strategic planning and imagining a collective future. That need is as urgent and as vital today as it was in 1868 when Hampton University was founded, and in 1978 when AAMA was established.

This special issue of The Public Historian on the State of Black Museums focuses on a range of critical topics looking back to founding institutions—their leaders and historical, political, and social contexts—as well as contemporary and forward-facing twenty-first century issues. The State of Black Museums offers readers a rich historiography centered on Black museums and related institutions, as well as a broader range of essays that address critical issues involving interpretation, organizational relevance and sustainability, leadership and professional practice—past, present, and future.

Informed by the activism of the twentieth-century Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements, a Black museums movement emerged among many of these cultural organizations in the 1960s and later that are, by intention, engaged in the practice of "participatory history" and culture. This culturally informed, audience-centered institution building and professional practice around organizational values, exhibitions, interpretation, and audiences both anticipates and instructs the "participatory" historical model adopted by the field of public history in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In her memoir-like essay on Black museum founders, Fath Davis Ruffins offers readers an intricate social and political historical context of Black museums, the ideologies informing...


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