Whose History, Whose Culture?: The Museum of African American History, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Urban Politics at the End of the Twentieth Century

By Miller, Karen R. | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Whose History, Whose Culture?: The Museum of African American History, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Urban Politics at the End of the Twentieth Century


Miller, Karen R., Michigan Quarterly Review


"Culture" and cultural institutions have been central figures in debates about urban development and redevelopment throughout the second half of the twentieth century and remain loaded issues into the twenty-first. Questions about what to do with libraries, museums, parks, and zoos, and over whether to build sports stadiums, casinos, and shopping malls have become contentious issues for urban politicians and residents. As different camps make claims about the best course of action for these institutions, they are simultaneously fighting about whom the city is for, how public funds should be allocated, and who gets to decide. The cultural institutions themselves are often endowed with symbolic importance in these debates. Reflecting existing tensions about the direction of the city, they come to represent different people's fantasies and aspirations about its future, its present, or its past.

In the mid-1990s, two of Detroit's most prominent cultural institutions, the Museum of African American History (AAH) and the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) were facing major turning points. The AAH expanded dramatically during the 1990s and became a far more visible presence in the city when it moved into a large, new building in 1997. The DIA, conversely, was trimming down its staff, shortening its hours and struggling to maintain its programs as the state of Michigan slashed its funding. While these two developments had little to do with each other, a controversy about how to manage the museums turned into a public debate about how the city should be run and about who had the right to be making decisions about its future. Participants in the debate endowed each institution with complicated and often inconsistent political and metaphorical meanings. Journalists, pundits, and residents all made claims about race, privatization, state control of municipal institutions, the importance or repugnance of maintaining a business-friendly climate in the city, the rights of workers, and the relationship between the city and its suburbs. In order to understand this debate, it is important to understand the history of the two institutions and the political climate in the city during the 1990s.

In 1965, Charles Wright founded and opened Detroit's "International Afro-American Museum" in a large house on West Grand Boulevard. Along with about thirty volunteers, Wright collected African and African American artifacts from local families, conducted oral histories and sponsored shows for black artists. In the mid-1980s, the museum's board of directors formed a partnership with the city and secured federal block-grant money to build a new building.1 The new, $3.5 million building finally opened in 1987, moving from Detroit's west side into the Cultural Arts Center near Wayne State University. That year, the city made its first substantial commitment to the museum: a pledge to budget annual operations and maintenance funds and an initial allotment of $875,000.

Just three years later, Mayor Coleman Young took control of the museum's board and spearheaded a campaign to build a bigger, better facility that could "draw tourists and scholars from throughout the nation."2 In 1992, Detroit voters approved a $20 million bond issue for the museum. In 1994, Coleman Young retired after twenty years as mayor of Detroit. The new mayor, Dennis Archer, continued to pursue Young's plans for the African American History museum. In 1996 voters passed another referendum, for a $10 million bond for the AAH.3 The next year, Detroit's Museum of African American History4 moved again and became the largest museum of black history and culture in the nation. The new building, loosely modeled after an African hut, now occupies a prominent place in the Cultural Center, next to the Science Museum and around the block from the Detroit Institute of Arts. The city of Detroit thus metaphorically elevated African American history to a place of importance among the city's cultural institutions. …

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