From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement

By Andrea A. Burns. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. 249 pp. $24.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-62534-035-1. 

The author of From Storefront to Monument, Andrea A. Burns, is an assistant professor of history at Appalachian State University. Her well-written and compelling book focuses on the creation of four African American neighborhood museums by tracing their beginnings in the 1960s, influenced by the Black Power Movement, to today. She analyzes their reception, their outreach programs, and their viability. The museums selected for analysis are: the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago; the International Afro-American Museum of Detroit; the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Washington, D.C. She primarily concentrates on and has separate chapters devoted to the African American Museum of Philadelphia, created in response to the planned bicentennial events in 1976. She ends the book anticipating the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture planned for 2015. Ironically some of the issues faced by the national museum, such as where to locate it, echo those encountered by the neighborhood museums decades ago.

The book is divided into eight chapters including an introduction and conclusion. The book is well-illustrated with ads, newspaper pictures of protests and of groundbreakings at building sites, photographs of hearings, blueprints, brochures and exhibits. Burns uses a variety of sources to construct her book, including internal documents, interviews of key players, and even statements from a museum’s suggestions’ box.

The mission statements and goals of these museums were to provide a counternarrative about African American/African history. These neighborhood museums primarily emphasized African American culture and, to a lesser extent, African culture. Their collections “offered a distinct rebuttal to the narrative of invisibility practiced by mainstream museums with regard to the presence and historical agency of African Americans.” (p. 4).

The ideas behind the formation of these museums in the 1960s were similar to the earlier development of library collections of African American and African books and documents. Decades before the creation of these neighborhood museums, curators, librarians and bibliophiles compiled collections at the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints at the 135th Street Library branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture); the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University (the motto on their website is “Preserving the Legacy of the Black Experience”); and the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Chicago Public Library that “documents the black experience.”

Similar to library bookmobiles designed to provide access to distant neighborhoods, the museum in Detroit had a mobile exhibit van that traveled to schools, churches, and the Michigan State Fair. As recently as 2011 the DuSable museum in Chicago had a mobile exhibition, “Taking it to the Streets.”

Interestingly, the lack of archives and libraries within some of the museums were considered a crucial failure. The African American Museum of Philadelphia planned to create a library and archive on the fourth floor, but costs escalated and it was never completed. Detroit’s International Afro-American Museum consciously made a decision to not have an archive and to concentrate on exhibits instead. However, Chicago’s DuSable museum did have a library, built on an initial donation of 4,000 volumes. Burns cites one example of a citizen going to DuSable to conduct research because the local public library lacked the materials related to his topic.    

Towards the end of the book, Burns describes the difficulties faced by these museums in the 1980s through the early 2000s, including decreasing attendance. Many of these neighborhood museums suffered because they were often staffed by community leaders and members who lacked traditional training as museum professionals or experience in creating museum exhibits, in fundraising and marketing, or in public relations.

The final chapter technically cannot be written until after the national museum opens in 2015 and the full impact on the neighborhood museums cannot be measured for several years. Some fear that by removing the contributions of African Americans from other general museums that it further “ghettoizes” African American history. Additional concerns include reservations that a national museum could lead to the demise of these neighborhoods museums that do not have the resources to compete with this national museum for fundraising and artifacts for exhibits.

The book contributes to those interested in American history, museum studies, African American studies, public history and as the author notes, Black public history. It is an engrossing story about these important neighborhood institutions.  


Ethelene Whitmire

School of Library and Information Studies

University of Wisconsin-Madison