Despite Interest Boom, Funding Remains a Bust for Black Museums

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Despite Interest Boom, Funding Remains a Bust for Black Museums

Of the estimated 8,200 museums in the United States, nearly 3,300 were established after 1970, feeding a ravenous public appetite for exploring the country's complex history and culture outside of the academic setting.

There are more than 150 African American museums, a diverse lot that includes the Black Fashion Museum in Washington, D.C.; the African American Museum of Fine Art in San Diego; the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis; and the Children's Museum of African American Culture in Chicago. The state-of-the-art, glass-domed Museum of African American History in Detroit -- with 120,000 feet of galleries, classrooms, research space and other facilities -- is the world's largest Black historical and cultural museum.

There are many reasons for the museum boom: increased interest in the study of social history; the desires of various groups to preserve and define their own unique cultures; and a growing interest in exploring the private lives of people great and small.

The nation's Bicentennial Celebration, in 1976 also fueled the flames, according to Dr. Fath Ruffins, head of the Collection of Advertising History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

"There's been a tremendous surge of interest in history," Ruffins says. "A lot of people are energized now by trying to understand the past."

Many are trying to understand the world around them, as well. Among the strongest trends of late are children's museums, aquariums, and science and technology museums.

"It used to be that only major cities had museums of science." says Ellen Griffee of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, an umbrella group with 310 members. "Now you're seeing mid-size cities and small cities with science museums. It's very much community driven."

There is, it seems. a museum for every interest. Among those to open their doors in the past five years are: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland; the Berman Museum of art and global military artifacts in Anniston, Alabama; the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles; the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City; and the Sci-Port Discovery Center in Shreveport, Louisiana. Even a group of Mustang auto enthusiasts is looking to build a national museum, the Mustang Experience, in the near future.

The role of museums as centers of public education has increased visibility and opportunities for public historians. Their job, explains Ruffins; involves "appealing to a wider public than do historians in the academic world, whose audiences tend to be their colleagues, their students, and highly specialized audiences.

"The research process may be the same, but the outcomes are rather different. Doing an exhibition is completely different than writing a book, Museums visitors have to see something. So there is the requirement for public historians to understand more about design and spatial relationships -- there are more disciplines involved," she adds.

With museums broadening their constituency, the number of museum visits jumped from 389 million in 1979 to nearly 600 million in 1989. Still, museums face formidable challenges of keeping the masses coming and doing an effective job of educating those who visit. The public is, after all, swamped with entertainment options. Moreover, museums are still regarded by many as staid, sleepy little enclaves for the college-educated.

Their efforts to rise to the challenges have changed how museums look, feel, and relate to the public.

"For years, museums concentrated on building their collections," says Ed Able Jr. …