Urban Wire Our Nation Needs African American Museums to Restore Public Memory and Light the Way Forward
John Sankofa, LesLeigh D. Ford, Claire Boyd
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There is much to be learned from the past that can guide our nation’s footsteps at this important juncture in history. The fortressing of the nation’s capital for the 2021 presidential inauguration, the assault on the Capitol building by white supremacists and others, and the mass eruption of protests in 2020 against police violence and structural racism are all stark reminders that the past isn’t dead and buried. It isn’t even past.

It is within this reality that African American museums carry out the duty of preserving the artifacts and educating the public on our nation’s past and unfolding present. The duality of this mission—of curating the relics of both pain and progress—is striking. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) preserves 10 shards of stained glass from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four Black girls, while saluting the leadership role of African American virologist Kizzmekia Corbett in discovering the vaccine for COVID-19 last year.

African American museums are more than guardians of history and culture

Though the NMAAHC, which opened on the National Mall in 2016, is the most well-known among African American museums, it does not stand alone. Across the country, hundreds of African American museums and collections at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) document African American life, history, and culture. They help restore public memory by chronicling social and political movements, including Reconstruction and the labor, women’s rights, civil rights, Black Power, and Black Lives Matter movements. These institutions serve as important community assets for engaging youth and other residents in conversations and activities that bring vibrancy to places all across the country.

Telling a complicated and ongoing story of tragedy and resilience, these exhibits, collections, and public education programs include a wax museum’s full-model slave ship; early copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment; a repository of Black labor movement documents; Louis Armstrong’s custom-made trumpet; a pleated, wrap-style dress a seamstress named Rosa Parks created; Oprah Winfrey’s sectional leather studio couch; artwork exhibits protesting the police killing of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other victims of police violence; and placards and buttons demanding reparations for slavery and four centuries of racial inequality dating back to 1619 and many other works of art and artifacts that mark pain and celebrate progress.

These guardians of African American history and culture tell our nation’s story and connect it to the here and now. Their curated histories and artwork help us understand the past and light the way forward in today’s uncertain time. Indeed, no matter how well-intentioned and data-driven our racial equity agendas, they are not likely to succeed in the absence of earnest historical reflection and national efforts to reconcile the unsettled past with the present.

Recently, at the request of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), researchers in the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy completed the first-ever retrospective evaluation of the African American History and Culture (AAHC) museum grant program. Created by federal legislation in 2003, IMLS’s AAHC program has, over its 15-year grantmaking history, awarded 215 grants totaling $22 million to nurture and build the capacity of African American museums, cultural institutes, and HBCUs.

Applicant experiences and perceptions informed new directions for strengthening the AAHC program’s administrative practices, including broadening program goals, rethinking the program’s cost share requirements, growing the funding, and increasing outreach, webinars, and engagement.

The federal government supports African American museums, but greater public and private investments are needed

Despite the public value of their mission, African American museums face substantial challenges and remain chronically underfunded. The new research report suggests that the federal government has played a significant role in sustaining many of these museums and can leverage capacity building and additional funding from philanthropic sources to further address challenges these organizations face.

The findings show that the AAHC program is an indispensable source of support, reaching across nearly 400 eligible African American institutions, representing all geographic regions in the United States. One in four eligible organizations are HBCUs. Approximately half of all grant applicants received one award.

Awardees reported that the AAHC grant they received improved professional capacity and systems and improved or expanded museum collections. Most awarded applicants noted they used the AAHC grant to attract additional funding or expect to in the future. One surveyed museum administrator noted how the AAHC program helps address the “absence of cultural representation” in the sector by supporting “the pipeline for cultural workers.”

Overall, as envisioned by the authorizing legislation, awarded applicants overwhelmingly cite the AAHC program as a critical funding source that has enabled them to significantly expand reach, build capacity, strengthen professional training and development, improve financial resilience and sustainability, increase public access to collections, and more effectively connect with audiences. 

However, researchers also observed that “the greatest limitation of the AAHC program to date is its funding capacity.” Funding has ranged from $842,000 in its first year to a high of $2,731,000 in 2020, falling considerably short of the legislation’s authorized funding. And although awards have been made in 31 states, 14 states with eligible organizations have never received funding.

Unfortunately, unlike the NMAAHC, most African American museums do not have access to big ticket funders, like the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose generous contributions helped make the NMAAHC possible. Many of the smaller African American institutions rely on grassroots funding strategies, like potluck fundraisers and renting out space.

Collaboration and courage are essential to restoring public memory

There are key things we can and must do to reinvigorate public and private support for African American museums, including forming strategic coalitions to increase investments in collections and preservation efforts; supporting the pipeline of museum professionals of color, including curators, archivists, educators, and administrators; and multiplying collaborative efforts to strengthen the connections between social justice, equity, and investments in the arts and educational programming. The report affirms the benefits of these kinds of investments.

Stepping up the national investment in African American museums requires public awareness of the value they bring to restoring public memory, informing our present, and lighting the way forward. An emerging strategy of Urban researchers is to anchor policy research to historical evidence, using history to contextualize research on structural racism and race-conscious policies. These researchers are demonstrating that history is both actionable and correctable.

Through witnessing and tracing structural racism from past to present, African American museums illuminate new choices for tomorrow, such as the legislative proposal to study reparations, that could bring the bold experiment of democracy in alignment with the elusive national goals of accountability, social justice, healing, and renewal. 

But public courage is needed to confront the past and its deleterious effects on the present. Revisiting the darker moments of our nation’s history can cause discomfort for some. But relishing in only the triumphs and achievements of the past is not enough to transform America. As the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman said on the heavily guarded steps of the Capitol building, “Being American is more than the pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”


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Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy