What is an African American Museum?
The boundaries of “museum” are notoriously fuzzy. For example, while some definitions are narrow and exclude broad swaths of institutions such as those that are non-collecting or without a physical location others are more inclusive, including organizations as diverse as zoos, planetariums, and historic sites. The flexibility of the concept is perhaps best captured by a statement in the 2008 National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums (The American Association of Museums) guide that "We may have to live with the fact that 'museum' as a concept is the intersection of many complex categories, resulting in an organization that people can identify intuitively but that cannot be neatly packaged in a definition' (pg. 3).
The fact that “African American” museums are also distinguished in reference to race and ethnicity further complicates their definition. The racial dimension of African American museums not only has to take into account questions of who is African American, but also what about the museums is African American, and how much African Americanness is sufficient to warrant inclusion. For example, while “African American” could presumably refer strictly to history and culture related to people of African descent within the context of the United States, the 2003 National Survey of African American Museums includes organizations that are African focused, such as the National Museum of African Art and the former Museum for African Art.
Questions concerning what about a museums should be African American in order to garner this designation are brought to fore in the 1988 Association of African American Museums (AAAM) report Profile of Black Museums. Noting that it was challenging “to define those characteristics that made a museum distinctively a ‘Black’ museum” they settled on not only a mission focused definition, but also one that referenced black leadership. “Your museum must have significant representation in both its operations and governance by Black persons (i.e., person(s) of continental African descent),” the report explains (pg. 15). However, a decade later the 2008 AAAM/IMLS co-sponsored survey on African American cultural institutions only refers to mission in defining what about a museum makes it black. Yet, even with mission there can be questions about the degree of focus that is required to merit inclusion.
The 1988 AAAM survey and the IMLS grant criteria designate African American museums (or black museums in the case of the AAAM report) as those having a “primary” focus on the group. The 2008 AAAM/IMLS survey report further clarifies the issue of quantity by establishing a specific percentage necessary for inclusion. The report notes that “an organization’s mission needed to be at least 50% focused on African American history or culture to qualify" (pg. 1).
This discussion highlights the complexity of defining a subset of cultural organizations as “African American.” The AAMD takes a broad view of this designation. A broad scope allows researchers and others interested in this type of institution to explore the full range of organizations that can fall under this category. Ultimately, the cultural institutions included in the database are linked by having missions with a significant focus on the history and/or culture of people from the African Diaspora.
Search Categories and Other Fields
Searchable categories include museum name, region, state, city, focus, budget, Smithsonian Affiliate, Google Cultural Institute, Bank of America-Museums on Us, and Million Dollar Donation From Major NMAAHC Donor. While not searchable, museum profiles also include other information such as address and website. Below are brief notes about selected fields:
NMAAHC Survey, AAAM/IMLS Survey, IMLS Grant: If there is a “1” next to the NMAAHC Survey or AAAM/IMLS Survey fields in a museum profile then the organization is included in the publications reporting findings from these surveys--e.g. the 2003 report in the case of the former and the 2008 report in the case of the latter. If there is a "1" next to IMLS Grant in a museum profile then the organization has received an IMLS Museum Grant for African American History and Culture.
Bank of America-Museums on Us: Museums on Us is a Bank of America corporate philanthropy program where they offer free admission for cardholders to selected museums on the first full weekend of each month. These museums can be searched in the AAMD. A "1" in the results fields indicates that this organization is part of this program. For more information about black cultural philanthropy see the blog post High-Impact Black Cultural Philanthropy: Million Dollar Gifts to Multiple African American Museums.
Budget: With the exception of Smithsonian Institutions all budget information is from recent 990 Tax Forms. For example, if the “budget source” field for an organization reads “2014 Form 990” then the budget information was garnered from this source. Budget information is only included for organizations where it is publicly available. Also note, any search that includes budget will only pull up results for the subset of museums where budget information is present.
Focus: While it is not uncommon for African American museums to have a broad charge encompassing history, fine art, and other forms of culture, the focus field allows institutions to be searched according to whether they primarily seem to concentrate on history, fine art, both history and fine art or are an interdisciplinary cultural center. The latter category includes organizations that focus on visual culture along with other cultural disciplines. The other category includes organizations that do not fall into any of these categories such as many music centered museums.
Google Cultural Institute: As part of their Cultural Institute, Google partners with organizations to present high-resolution images of their collections online. These organizations can be searched in the AAMD. Links to their Cultural InstItute profiles are also listed.
Million Dollar Donation From Major NMAAHC Donor: This field searches for selected museums that have received a million dollar donation from a donor who has also given a million dollar gift to the NMAAHC (as of 9/13/16). Donor Name, Donor Amount, Donor Year, and Donor Source are reported. If donation fields are blank in the results page for a museum then this information is unknown. Year generally refers to the date that the gift was announced or the date that is listed in a report of donations. It should be noted that in some cases a million dollar commitment is announced in one year made but the gift is actually made over multiple subsequent years. See the blog post High-Impact Black Cultural Philanthropy: Million Dollar Gifts to Multiple African American Museums for more information about these shared donors.
Smithsonian Affiliate: Smithsonian Affiliates are museums that collaborate with the Smithsonian Institution. Affiliates can be searched in the AAMD. However, the following three museums will not show up in the search because they are actual Smithsonian Museums: The Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Finally, while the goal is to be as accurate as possible, there may be errors in the AAMD. Also, the database may undergo periodic updates. If you would like to suggest a cultural institution or share information about a project that draws on the AAMD please contact [afammuseums]@[gmail.com].