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Designer And Activist De Nichols Heads To Harvard To Enhance St. Louis' Griot Museum

St. Louisan De Nichols will spend a year at Harvard University looking at how to enhance and sustain the Griot Museum of Black History.
Provided | De Nichols
St. Louisan De Nichols will spend a year at Harvard University looking at how to enhance and sustain the Griot Museum of Black History.

Five years after a white Ferguson police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black man, there is no permanent, local display of the art sparked by the protests. 

Designer and activist De Nichols wants to change that. Through a Harvard University fellowship, she will study how to transform the Griot Museum of Black History in north St. Louis into such a space.

Nichols is known for the sculpture the Mirror Casket, a reflective casket-shaped piece she created with six other artists. It won such acclaim that it is now exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

The sculpture’s move to the nation’s capital prompted Nichols to wonder why there was no major black-focused institution in St. Louis displaying significant local works.

A Loeb Fellowship from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design will allow Nichols to explore enhancing the Griot as a space for black arts, history and culture, while also increasing the institution’s overall capacity and sustainability. Her efforts coincide with the arrival of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which promises to reinvigorate the area. 

“As the north side might be changing over the next couple of years, what is the responsibility and the prioritization that we place on black spaces and black-focused cultural institutions?” Nichols said. “I think there’s great opportunity right now.”

‘Heartbreaking for Me’

This photo of the Griot Museum of Black History at 2505 St Louis Ave. is from February 2016.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Last spring, Griot founder Lois Conley announced that an unnamed donor had willed the museum, pictured in this 2016 photo, enough money to operate for one year. In addition, a new Growing Griot fund provided by Washington University will help the institution make better use of its space.

Nichols’ interest in the Griot is driven by her relationship with Lois Conley, who opened the museum in 1997.

“Oh my goodness,” Nichols said. “I light up when I think about Lois.”

The pair forged their friendship over a shared passion for seafood.

“We sit, we eat and we talk,” Nichols said. “A lot of it is her talking about her family and her background and what drove her to start the Griot, and the sense of filling cultural voids that exist in our city.”

African Americans — who make up nearly 47% of the St. Louis population — are woefully unrepresented in exhibition space, Nichols said.

“The fact that we don't have a cultural institution in this city, on the magnitude of some of our other museums and spaces, that is solely dedicated to the culture, the history, the heritage of black people in this city, sometimes is heartbreaking for me,” Nichols said.

As Nichols pursues the fellowship in Boston, her local initiatives, including Food Spark networking for social justice, will go on the back burner. She plans to return to St. Louis after the yearlong fellowship, and sees her work concerning the Griot as a long-term project.

“I'm someone who, when I get fixated on an idea, I just gotta make it happen,” Nichols said. “And so far, I've been good at executing on ideas.”

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Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.