Monday, March 22, 2010

A Powerful Experience in a Community Museum

These are some thoughts on a very small museum called the Brazos Valley African American Museum. I was fortunate enough to visit it during the Texas Association of Museums conference, and it brought up some reactions and emotions that I wanted to share with you.

The Brazos Valley African American Museum is in the town of Bryan, TX, a town of about 75,000 right next door to Texas A&M University. It’s everything you’d expect from a tiny, community-built museum: a couple small rooms, a haphazard collection of objects, labels typed on printer paper and laminated or stuck to the wall.

But this museum, more than many others I’ve visited, had a very powerful and apparent reason for being. Its founders, Willie and Mell Pruitt, came to the area in the 1950s and were concerned that no one seemed to be documenting the history of the local African American community. They were educators and were heavily involved in the schools, first the segregated black schools, and then later, in the 1960s onward, with the integrated school. The curator of the museum, Wayne, is the son of the former principal of the black school, and about a third of the exhibits showcase people and objects from that school. The museum itself is in a building that used to house one of the segregated black schools.

Walking around, I felt a strong sense of the urgency and importance that the founders of the museum put on its existence. There were several exhibits that just told the stories of the founders and other local folks, and other displays that simply presented biographies of famous African Americans who were born in or had some connection to that part of Texas. Every display, from the ladies’ church hats to a prize-winning quilt to former Miss Teen Texas photos to artwork brought back from Africa, seemed to be filled with the stories and the lives of the people who had created, contributed, or were featured in them.

My favorite part was a wall of photos and transcribed oral histories from local elderly community members. It didn’t look promising (I wish I’d taken a wide view shot) –a bunch of framed pictures with full pages of text fixed to the wall next to them. It wasn’t even 100% clear which stories went with each photo. But the stories were totally captivating. I eagerly read hundreds of words and then moved onto the next one. I’ve included a couple of pictures I took of ones I particularly enjoyed. The stories conveyed the unique voice and spirit of these people in a way that helped me feel connected to them—even though we come from entirely different worlds. I learned about Juneteenth, the annual celebration commemorating June 19, 1865, when news of Emancipation finally reached Galveston Texas. I read stories from women who wore hat and gloves every day of their lives and women who trusted “Dr. Jesus” to help them deliver fourteen children. I read about penny candy and the circus coming into town on wagons that got stuck in the mud. It was one of those rare times where you read something in a museum and it helps you really understand something outside your own experience.

I don’t think I’m over-romanticizing my experiences in Brazos Valley, but I’m not entirely certain why I took such pleasure in this small museum. I’ve been in other small historical societies with a comparable level of amateurism without feeling comparably affected by the experience. I think what I loved about the Brazos Valley African American Museum was the fact that it told a story that might not otherwise be shared. I felt lucky it existed. People—a lot of people—had to put in a great deal of time and effort and care just to make those stories available. As a non-Texan, non-Christian, non-African American, I learned a lot from people who I perceived as generously and genuinely sharing their life experiences. I never questioned why the museum existed or who it was for. It was for the people who had built it. It was for their unique, small community. And it was for me, too.

Have you ever had an experience like this?

6 comments, add yours!:

Jennifer said...

I was at TAM, and I really enjoyed this museum, as well. Even though some of the exhibits were sort of homemade, you could just tell that the stories being told, both through the oral histories and the other objects in the museum, were so important to them. I had a really neat conversation with one of the trustees about the hats, and it was just fun, because I got to feel like I was having this really important tradition lovingly shared with me, rather than simply explained to me. It's an important distinction.

Anonymous said...

I think small, sort of personal museums like this are really important. People should see that there is a world outside of the famous works of art and artifacts that most people flock to museums to see. Being from Texas myself I have a love for our local and state history. There is so much to tell and so many stories that should be heard and that is why I really appreciate small museums like this one. You get a really different spin on things.

Aaron Goldblatt said...

Sounds familiar, although I have not had the pleasure of visiting this museum.

About ten years ago I found myself in Los Alamos, NM. Being the dork I am, I visited the local historical society. It was the same kind of patched-together approach to grabbing history with both hands. An all-volunteer organization, they took on what is among the most important moments in 20th century science (among other arenas). With love, humor, honesty, and maybe $10 per square foot, these folks nailed it for me.

I loved your previous post about idiocyncratic places (I'd add the now-defunct Baltimore Dime Museum to your excellent list).

This one made me feel even more convinced it has nothing to do with production values or budget size. I'm not sure it takes monomania (although that probably helps), but it certainly takes an intense focus on a clear and important goal by people who would do almost anything to get there.

Linda Norris said...

I love that the first person original voices were what drew you in, but your post raised an important question for me--what next? Clearly this museum has inspiring--and inspired founders--but what happens next? How does it ensure its sustainability? One way might be remaining a manageable size and scope, but I'd love to know what they thought about what their museum would be fifty years from now.

Nina Simon said...

Linda,
Part of me agrees with you, but part of me also wonders how much it matters if a very small museum has a sustainability or even an outreach plan. It clearly serves a real community function right now. Part of its power is in the fact that it is so obviously needed and loved. Will it be as important to sustain it when it no longer plays that role? I'm not sure.

Museums don't usually have short lifespans, but I'm not sure that's always for the best reasons. Community service groups and nonprofits shift and change and die over time. Should museums do the same?

kavabuggy said...

I was also at TAM, and enjoyed this museum a lot. My favorite story on the wall came from a woman who dated a man with a girlfriend and had him parade her in front of the soon-to-be-ex's house so she'd know the guy was with her now! Haha!

Anyway, I spent quite a LOT of time at this museum, which surprised me, because it is quite small. Although I have no understanding of the Baptist religion, I found the area about the local churches very fascinating, and LOVED the display cases with the Sunday hats.

I liked how they created a context for their museum, with a history of the African American culture of the area in the large cases.