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Missouri History Museum takes steps toward strengthening African American history programming

Courtesy of the Hands On Black History Museum

The recent $5 million gift tech company Emerson made to the Missouri History Museum will fund the museum’s first exhibit from its initiative to improve the representation of African-American history in museum programing. The exhibit will attempt to show St. Louis' position as a leading city of the civil rights movement.

“Why we’re saying we’re first in civil rights is, really a lot of the major civil rights cases came out of St. Louis,” said Managing Director for Community Education and Events Melanie Adams.

The museum’s civil rights-themed exhibit will feature artifacts collected from current St. Louisans. The initiative has evolved from more than a decade of the History Museum’s involvement in similar projects aimed to increase awareness of African-American history in the region.

Administrators and directors intend to use the endowment and the interest generated by the investment to explore renovating core galleries to better include diverse stories from the region. Museum directors will explore the possibility of producing a civil rights symposium for local and national scholars as well as expanding the museum’s K-12th grade program called “Black History Highlights.” They also hope to include more diversity in the museum in all levels of staff, from interns on up.

Adams emphasized the museum’s first step is looking for artifacts supported by strong stories, not necessarily objects connected to famous people or major events already known to the public. This collecting initiative is the museum’s first act with the new Emerson funds. Before the collecting project can be launched, the museum must hire a new cataloguer who will help manage the artifacts.

“As artifacts come in, there’s a whole kind of process, it’s not only getting the artifact, but then it’s cataloging the artifacts and conserving the artifacts, a whole process needs to happen. So that cataloger will be key,” said Adams.

The new initiative relies on the $5 million from Emerson that will come in over the next seven years. The funding deal was struck after six or seven proposals passed back and forth between Emerson and the museum, Adams said. It’s a dance the tech company and history museum have done before. They’ve worked on similar projects for more than a decade.

More than a decade ago, Emerson and a number of civic leaders hoped to construct an independent cultural center on Delmar Boulevard near The Loop that would focus on African American history in St. Louis. That project was spurred by the St. Louis Urban League’s study conducted in 2000 to see whether the city could support an African-American cultural center. Urban League Chief Executive and President James H. Buford, now retired, was a champion of the venture.

In the mid aughts, Emerson purchased a property on the Delmar Boulevard it planned to renovate for creating the center. That property is not theDelmar property purchased by the History Museum from former Mayor Freeman Boseley Jr. around the same time. According to Pat Sly of Emerson, the project stagnated during the economic disaster that occurred after the housing market crash.

“We hit a barrier if you will, or an obstruction with the recession that started in 2008, went through 2009 and part of 2010 so we had to step back. We realized that our vision of a free standing entity would be far too expensive and probably wasn’t as good a solution to encompass the whole African-American study into the museum,” said Sly. 

The arrival of Fran Levine as museum executive director reinvigorated funding discussions between the museum and Sly, who by this time had taken over management for Emerson’s involvement with the project. As the two discussed new ways for the History Museum to expand its programming, they met with leaders involved in the stand-alone project like Buford, Washington University Professor Gerald Early and John Moten. Buford declined to comment on the project or these talks.

Early cautioned proponents of an independent museum to consider the project's sustainability and ability to maintain visitor interest after the initial opening.  He urged them to consider the various successes of locations like the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the African American History Museum in Philadelphia, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. 

"It's difficult for stand-alone black museums to make it and there's lots of stories about the struggles of these various types of museums to make it," said Early. 

According to Emerson’s Sly, the talks were an attempt to make sure the current project maintains characteristics of the original stand-alone proposal.

“We spent a lot of time going back and forth on the objective of the project from its beginning around 2000 and how we could accomplish that within the confines of the History Museum,” said Sly.

Adams said, “At the end of the day everyone wants the same thing. They want to make sure there are diverse stories being told around St. Louis history,” said Adams.

For professor Early the choice to develop the project through the Missouri History Museum is prudent. The museum employee's expertise in programing, exhibit planning, and audience development and retention better position the initiative for success.

"It kind of made a lot of sense to bring in the History Museum and to give this kind of project a better chance of long-term sustainability," said Early.

As the museum turns to hiring a cataloger for the project and finalizing plans for the St. Louis “first in civil rights” exhibit slated for 2017, administrators are also planning for educational opportunities and possible scholarly meetings they hope to fund with the endowment.