The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016, after more than a century of development. Designed to "tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture," it forms the only national museum in the USA that is exclusively devoted to the documentation of African American history and culture. It stands on Washington's National Mall as the newest, nineteenth museum of the Smithsonian Institute. Established by an Act of Congress in 2003, the museum has had over one million visitors since its opening.
The displays in the museum are divided into two halves. There are three history galleries, charting key events in the history of America, with specific reference to the experience of the African American community. These galleries begin with displays about Africa prior to the slave trade, showcasing the rich culture and advanced nature of civilisations there. The displays then move on to enslavement, the Middle Passage and Plantation Life. In all of these displays, the experience of the enslaved people is central to the interpretation, and much use is made of archive material, providing quotations which bring the voices of the enslaved to the fore of the narrative.
The displays in the history galleries go on to interpret abolition, reconstruction, emancipation and Civil Rights. They end with the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. The displays make use of a wealth of collections, some 36,000 objects now belong to the museum. The key to the narrative throughout all of these displays is the central position of African Americans to the national history of America.
The other side of the museum consists of three 'community galleries.' Again these focus on the achievements of African Americans, through themes like sport, military, theatre, television, literature and art. Here, some of the museum's 'celebrity' artefacts, including Michael Jordan's NBA finals jersey and one of Jimi Hendrix's vests. This section of the museum also houses the 'Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Centre,’ where visitors can look at digitised archive material with expert guidance to explore their own family tree.
The African American Museum of Iowa was founded by a small group of members of the Mt. Zion missionary Baptist church in Cedar Rapids in 1993. The museum was closed for a year during flooding, reopening in 2009. It attempts to preserve, exhibit, and teach the African American heritage of Iowa. The museum aims to examine Iowa’s African American history, from the transatlantic slave trade until Civil Rights. The museum also offers traveling exhibits available for to rent for two weeks at a small cost. It is heavily funded by donations.
The permanent exhibits at the museum are concerned with tracing Iowa’s African American history, from its origins in western Africa to the present, through slavery, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. There is also a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions on a range of themes including, art and social history. Group tours are offered for adults. These last around 45 minutes and provide additional stories, contexts, and insight into the workings of the museum throughout the tour. For younger people the museum runs field trips and hands-on workshops offering age-appropriate lessons covering local African American history and culture. There is also an online collection which includes archives, photos, library items, and oral histories.
Decolonising the Colonial Gaze
This collection documents the work of a community-based partnership between the Antislavery Usable Past project and Yole!Africa in Goma and Lubumbashi. The project is based on an archive of photography produced by the British missionary Alice Seeley Harris during her time in the Congo Free State in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The project has used the visual archive as a basis for working with young people to explore the history and legacies of colonialism during the time at which the Congo Free State was under the personal ownership of King Leopold II of Belgium.
Defining what the ‘antislavery usable past’ of these images is raises questions of power and representation. Who gets to decide? The writing of history is a powerful tool – who is included and excluded from the story, indeed, who gets to write it in the first place, is a reflection of the inequalities of the society within which that history is produced. Working with a colonial archive in Britain - a former centre of empire - raises issues about who gets to access history. For formerly colonised people their histories, or at least the portion of their histories relating to the colonial experience, are often found in the archives, museums, and art galleries of the former colonising power. Alice’s photographs, for example, eventually became part of the archive of the British and Foreign Antislavery Society, which subsequently became the present-day NGO Antislavery International. The archive is held at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. For people resident within the former spaces of empire, the physical impracticality of visiting the collection means a separation from the objects, documents, and images which represent their past.