Saturday, August 1, 2009

History speaks out at the newly renovated African American Museum in Philadelphia

THE FLOORS have been covered with carpet depicting 1776 street maps of Philadelphia. The walls mounted with plasma TV screens and multimedia displays. The auditorium expanded and main art galleries spruced up. But the mission of the African American Museum in Philadelphia after its $4.5 million renovation is the same as it was when it opened in 1976: preserve, collect and interpret the history and stories of African-Americans in Philadelphia.

The museum's 30-plus-year history has had its ups and downs. Founded in 1976 during the bicentennial commemoration, it went through a series of financial stumbles and nearly closed in 2004. But after getting a $3 million grant from the city, $500,000 from PECO and the remainder from other donors, the museum got its first face-lift in 33 years. It shut down for three months this spring, but reopened in June with its state-of-the-art displays, interactive exhibits and plans for more improvements.

Ramona Riscoe Benson, president and CEO, estimated that the museum has presented more than 100 exhibits over the past 20 years - collections that make her proud. But she admitted the museum needed some improvements.

"People wanted to see the museum look more modern and less tired," Benson said.

The museum's new permanent exhibit, "Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia," traces the impact of African-Americans from 1776-1876. Swelling music, narration and theatrical lighting give life to the two-dimensional timeline which explores the environment, education, religion, entrepreneurship and family traditions of the century.

"This exhibition intends to typify how the black community survived and tell the stories of self-sustaining people like James Forten, Robert Purvis, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. It really talks about the foundings and the founders of our community,"said curator Richard Watson.

"You had to be an audacious individual to stand up courageously in the kind of oppressive atmosphere that existed back then," he added.

Upstairs in Gallery Two, 10 black trailblazers caught on giant plasma TV screens seem incredibly lifelike as they idle in the darkened room, waiting to interact with visitors. Approach a screen and the figure (played by local actors and filmed at WHYY-TV's studios) delivers a monologue about his or her life, achievements and struggles. A touch-screen allows visitors to pick which topic they want the figure to tell them about.

"Some of these people are little known, if known at all," said Roscoe. "Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the classical vocalist, or Alice of Dunk's Ferry - these are people who had very rich extraordinary stories but people probably know very little about them. We are very happy to have an opportunity to introduce them to our community and to make them come to life for visitors."

Watson has worked at the museum for 23 years, first as exhibit coordinator and now as curator. He's seen his staff shrink from six to one (himself) and the museum transform from behind the times, to cutting-edge.

Watson's favorite part of his job is localizing history. "If we borrow a history exhibition that deals with a specific tone, or civil rights issue, there's enough civil rights history in Philadelphia to augment that with local history and give relevance to a national story," he said.

He also said the museum's successes today are due to the staff's commitment and resilience. He remembers the temporary layoffs in 2004 and how everyone kept coming to work anyway, without pay.

"It was trying at that time because we didn't know if we would reach a period of recovery, but it's a testament to our small staff's big, dedicated heart. We had no alternative. We wanted to protect the museum and had faith that it would level off, and thank God it did."

Besides the new gallery exhibits, Benson said, the museum hosts receptions, film previews and educational events. It is even becoming a popular stop for family reunions.

In mid-October, the museum will undergo more renovations when it enlarges the entryway, redesigns the building's facade, and expands the gift shop. Benson said the museum hours will change to accommodate construction but that it will remain open during the work.

For the museum's curator, the sky isn't even the limit in terms of possible renovations. In the Conversations Gallery where walls, panels and even the pathway up to the exhibit are covered in history, Watson can't help but look up and say, "Why not?"

"I wish we could have done something with the ceiling," Watson said. "If we could put some monitors and things to prompt people to look up, that'd be great."


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