PATRICIA ANN BANKS

Associate Professor of Sociology, Mount Holyoke College

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in a Broader Context

African American museumsP. B.
Weeksville Heritage Society, Brookly, NY / © Patricia A. Banks

Weeksville Heritage Society, Brookly, NY © Patricia A. Banks

by Patricia A. Banks

While the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has received significant attention in recent weeks, it is part of a broader field of over 300 other cultural organizations focused on black history and culture in the United States.  Here, I draw on the African American Museums Database (AAMD) to contextualize the NMAAHC within the broader field of African American museums and related institutions.

Perhaps the most significant departure of the NMAAHC from other African American museums is size. As measured by budget, most African American museums are small organizations. The 2016 budget for the NMAAHC is $44 million. In contrast, million dollar budgets in the broader field of African American museums are atypical. While most museums in general are small, the NMAAHC stands out because it is the only museum in the field of African American museums that has a budget of this vast size. For example, whereas other types of Smithsonian Museums have peer institutions of similar size, such as the National Museum of Natural History (2016 FY budget $117,000,000) which counts the American Museum of Natural History (2014 FY Budget $198,534,225) in New York and the Field Museum of Natural History (2014 FY Budget $71,470,862) in Chicago as “size peers,” the NMAAHC stands alone. Partly to mitigate the effects of one dominant institution in the field the legislation for establishing the NMAAHC also included a grants program to support other African American museums. The IMLS Museum Grants for African American History and Culture that were established in 2006 are part of the broader support at the federal level for these organizations.

While the NMAAHC departs from other African American museums with its large size, its Southern roots are common. Over 200 Southern organizations are included in the AAMD. States such as Georgia and Florida have over two dozen a piece. In sharp contrast, evidence points to African American museums being less institutionalized in the West, particularly in states outside of California.  These regional patterns appear to map onto broader geographic patterns of African American residence and experience. For example, cultural institutions focused on slavery such as The Old Slave Mart Museum and The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, appear to be more common in the South.

Most African American museums have history as a primary or significant focus.

The NMAAHC’S concern with history, as well as its organization as a “history and culture” institution are also typical. Most African American museums have history as a primary or significant focus.  Museums that focus on fine art, such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, are less common.  On one hand the common focus on black history is in keeping with the longstanding concern with black history in African American public life.  However, the popularity of African American history museums is also consistent with a broader pattern in the museum field where historical organizations dominate.