Muskegon Heights African-American museum expanding
By Clayton Hardiman, MLive.com
Alongside the building, a new addition has sprung up. When it opens officially, probably some time in December, visitors will find new exhibit space, a small auditorium and multimedia enhancements.
Board members of the Muskegon County Museum of African American History say the $110,000 addition will help them fulfill their mission of recounting history and paying tribute to the lives of giants.
“We think it’s money well spent,” Dr. James Jackson, chairman of the museum board, said of the money that was raised from private donations.
Board member William Muhammad agreed. The museum, he said, holds major significance for the community — and not just African-Americans.
“Black people, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and Caucasians — they all need to be aware that we have a history,” Muhammad said. “Our intent is to bring content that will educate visitors in how we’ve spread all over the planet. If you don’t deal with history, how will you know what mistakes you’ve made or in what areas you’ve triumphed?”
Completion of the project is expected at the end of November, less than five months after construction began in mid-July.
During that time, with construction workers laying the floor, raising the walls and wiring the new addition, the museum has continued to welcome visitors to its existing space. During its regular hours, its doors have never closed.
But as important as they believe the museum’s mission to be, board members believe the significance of the addition project extends even further. They believe it reflects a community’s vitality against the backdrop of a struggling economy.
Muhammad, a minister and one of the members of the museum’s board, said they were told by a city inspections official that when the project began, it was the only new construction in the city of Muskegon Heights.
And the museum itself has defied challenging odds.
Those odds were evident from the very beginning. When the museum was first conceived, there was no building waiting. Material resources were in short supply.
The message from other black historians across the nations was to refuse to wait, to proceed anyway. One of those advisors was Margaret Burroughs, a pioneer historian who first opened the legendary Dusable Museum of African-American History on the ground floor of their Chicago home.
“She said, ‘Don’t wait. Just get it going,’” said Jackson, a Muskegon Heights osteopath and longtime community activist.
Initial plans were to show exhibits in Jackson’s Muskegon Heights office, but then the board managed to obtain the former home of the First Edition, a longtime Muskegon Heights book store.
Donations quickly added to the museum’s collection of artifacts, art and books. “We certainly appreciate the support of the community,” Muhammad said, “because it’s for the community.
Personality conflicts and relationship problems divided the museum board in late 2007. Jackson, the founding board president, resigned his post. A short time later, the museum closed its doors for a hiatus.
But this was a concept that refused to die. Less than three months later, see museum continued from in early 2008, the museum reopened its doors. It had a brand new board of directors, smaller and streamlined. And Jackson returned as chairman.
Muhammad called Jackson “the driving force” behind the museum. “He is the connection between this phase and the first phase,” Muhammad said. “I applaud his participation and vision.”
Board members say the addition will add to that impact. At 1,064 square feet, it will represents an increase of about 50 percent to the museum’s current space. Its auditorium will include a large viewing screen for documentaries and other films, plus a small stage. It will also allow multimedia material to be included in the institution’s curriculum.
“It’s bigger than it looks from the outside,” Muhammad said.
Since the museum returned from hiatus, the community’s response has been “just wonderful,” Jackson said. “We averages about 13 visitors a day. Donations are doing fairly well.”
The museum has drawn visitors from Ann Arbor and Detroit, including people looking to open similar institutions in their own community, board members said. What the museum here has done with African-American history should serve as a model for all people everywhere, Jackson said.
“I’ve talked to Latinos about a history museum,” Jackson said. “I’ve talked to Polish people. That’s the diversity.
“African-American history is American history. That’s why we resist the idea of Black History Month.”
Now the objective is to make the museum sustainable, Jackson said.