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New Direction For Cleveland’s African American Museum

Tuesday, February 11, 2003 at 2:45 PM

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The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati got a huge boost last week. $6 million in donations were made by the founder of Black Entertainment Television and the chairman of Proctor and Gamble, bringing the total amount raised for the facility to more than $90 million. That kind of support is a far cry from what's happening closer to home at Cleveland's African American Museum. A membership campaign for the museum that kicked off with the start of Black History Month raised less than $2,500. As ideastream's Renita Jablonski reports, the museum needs to re-define its mission before it will get the support it wants.

This time last year Cleveland’s African American Museum was just opening up after being closed for several months. The doors were shut because there wasn’t enough money to pay the heating bill. Things are a little better this year and as usual, the small staff is working hard to keep up with school tours. There are about two to three each day throughout Black History Month during the museum’s busiest season. Museum Director Nancy Nolan Jones is also working to take the organization in a new direction.

Nancy Nolan Jones: Please be the carrier of the news that this year will be the year that we are going to turn this African American museum into something which we can all be proud of. And we’re proud of it.

Nolan Jones launched the museum’s first official membership drive a couple weeks ago. She challenged the audience to take responsibility for making it stronger. Only about 60 people came out to the Crawford Road facility in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood that night to hear her message.

Inside the old libary building, the audience was treated to a moving performance of slave re-enactments. Exhibits with missing pieces, some on cardboard, served as the backdrop. Cracks mark corners of walls. Many displays have not been updated for years.

Bob White: It was different. I figured it needed a lot of work. I mean, and you can’t really compare it to other museums, so to speak.

Councilman Bob White is one of the younger African Americans on Cleveland City Council. He remembers the first time he visited the museum.

Bob White: I thought the fact that it was based in the inner city was a very good thing and I gave it a lot of kudos and credit for that. I thought the concept was as it should be but then again, I also realize that there was work to be done.

White sums up what many people think after visiting the museum - it’s got potential - and museum director Nancy Nolan Jones says she knows exactly what she wants to do with that potential.

Nancy Nolan Jones: We are looking to develop an African Village Campus. We need to have additional exhibit space, we need a large auditorium, we need classrooms, we need gift shop, we need buildings, we need offices.

Robert Eckardt: We really thought it was at this stage perhaps a laundry list or a wish list of things and there wasn’t a sense of how it could get phased in at a more reasonable level of support.

Robert Eckardt is vice president of programs for the Cleveland Foundation. He says late last fall Nolan Jones and other museum representatives presented their strategic plan to the Foundation.

Robert Eckardt: I guess I would say that it was a very expansive plan adding a large number of staff, suggesting a substantial six-figure level of support from the foundation. That’s really what we said to the museum is take this initial plan and go back and really look at what are the priorities, how things may be phased in over a period of time.

Eckardt says that advice is no different than what the foundation offers to countless organizations that visit its offices each year. In fact, the CEO of one of the most successful African American museum’s in the U.S. offers the same advice. Kristy Coleman is head of The Museum of African American History in Detroit.

Kristy Coleman: They have some very interesting spirit there. I mean, there’s a real can do attitude at the Cleveland museum. I think the challenge for them is trying to decide whether they want to be a city-wide institution or whether they want to be a neighborhood resource, and that is a difference. Those decisions are going to have to be made.

The Detroit museum has more than 4,000 supporting members and is housed in a state-of-the-art multi-million dollar facility. Compare that to 350 members of the African American Museum in Cleveland and a building that was purchased for a dollar from the Cleveland Public Library in the late 80’s. The Michigan landmark was born through a unique partership. The city of Detroit owns the building and the museum’s collections. Bob White says he admits that preserving the museum has not been a priority for city leaders but he says it’s time that changed.

Bob White: Cleveland as you know is more than 50% African American and I think it’s important that we begin to understand and respect our heritage and again, that it’s our baby and we need to be more concious of it.

Nancy Nolan Jones says she will continue making contact with people like White and look into other sources of funding. She hopes to host a County Commissioner’s meeting at the museum this spring and says an architect is already working on plans for a renovation and expansion.

Nancy Nolan Jones: Since I’ve been here in the eight years, when I came on board, the museum was really… we kind of started from scratch again and so we have a real strong idea of where we’re taking it.

In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3.

Additional Information

* African American Museum of Cleveland
* National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center
* Museum of African American History, Detroit
* Association of African American Museums
* DuSable Museum of African American History

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