Museums move away from 'art-apartheid'


April 26, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

It seemed impossible, but it was true: The Museum of the Confederacy, "perceived [in some quarters] as the last bastion of the lost cause" according to its chief executive officer Louis Gorr, last year mounted an exhibit called "Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South."

The result of intense research, it brought together more than 300 objects from paintings and sculpture to whips, manacles and bills of sale to handwritten diaries, to tell the story of blacks -- slave and free -- in the Old South.

It opened in Richmond in July 1991 to favorable local and national press. During its six-month run, 47,000 people saw it; a majority of the visitors -- 25,000 -- were black, going to a museum that blacks had shunned throughout its 100-year history.

"I would say that in the first month we had more African-Americans than in the previous century," says Mr. Gorr. "The average stay was about two hours, which is extraordinary, and there were many moving experiences. I remember seeing one elderly black lady, probably in her 90s, very frail and dignified, with two children who must have been her great-grandchildren, tracing for them someplace on a map of South Carolina where her kin had been, and telling them never to forget it. That's what museum work should be all about."

Like the Museum of the Confederacy, more and more museums around the country have tried increasingly in recent years to attract a growing African-American population; the issue will be the subject of a number of discussions at the American Association of Museums' annual meeting in Baltimore this week.

Figures do not exist for the percentage of museum-goers who are African-American, or how much that has changed in recent years.

But as many note, progress in developing a successful relationship between museums and the African-American population depends on many factors, and museums do not claim to be doing all the right things in all the right ways. Baltimore Museum of Art director Arnold L. Lehman says, "I don't think anyone has yet achieved the kind of overall level of satisfaction that we would like to aim for." (To see some things local museums are doing in this area, see the accompanying article on page 2.)

But the effort to reach the African-American community is there, as shows like "Before Freedom Came" testify.

Breaking barriers

Among other recent projects, in Dearborn, Mich., the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village recently did extensive research and built a group of programs on African-American family life and culture around three 19th century buildings, associated with slaves and free blacks, that Henry Ford bought in Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s but that had remained unused and decaying for decades.

In New London, Conn., the Lyman Allyn Art Museum decided to show its African art collection in a new light by exhibiting it with a collection of African-American folk art. In Baltimore, the Maryland Historical Society invited New York artist Fred Wilson to draw from its entire collection to create an installation about African-American and American Indian history in Maryland and how the historical society's collection does -- and doesn't -- reflect that history. In Boston, slavery is now recognized as part of the history of the Paul Revere House because the Revere family owned slaves.

As museums increase their attempts to woo African-Americans, as well as other minorities, the effort itself becomes the subject -- of mounting discussion and debate. Last year, the Association of Art Museum Directors published "Other Voices," a group of papers from a two-part symposium on museums and minorities held in 1990 and 1991. Art scholar and critic Maurice Berger's latest book, "How Art Becomes History," contains a chapter titled "Are Art Museums Racist?" which comes to the conclusion that they are still too much so.

A conservative past

A recently published AAM report on museum education, entitled "Excellence and Equity," states "museums must become more inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences" and "reflect our society's pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs." And AAM members will have an opportunity this week to hear panels on such subjects as "African-American Projects in Non-African-American Museums" to "Is What You're Hearing What I'm Saying? Crossed Messages in Cross-Cultural Communications" to "The African-American Museum Visitor: Who Comes, Who Does Not Come, and Why?"

Recent talks with some of the participants on those and other panels revealed something like a consensus that while museums are broadening their appeal, much remains to be done. "In

general, museums have been conservative organizations," says Kathrine Walker, director of education at the Allyn Art Museum. "I think there is now a movement to get away from that, but there's a lot of years of history to change."

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