Collections Access: Northwest African American Museum

By: Katie Williams

The Northwest African American Museum, Main Entrance just after opening in 2008. Photo by Jennifer Richard.

The Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) is not a collecting institution at this time. This fact has made describing our collections policy to the public tricky, because, isn’t that what museums do? They mainly collect objects and care for them in perpetuity, right?  In response to many collections questions, and requests for us to accession countless objects that may or may not meet our mission, my answer is this: “We collect more stories than objects”. This makes sense. Whenever we have an exhibit, we go out in the community to collect the local histories that enhance, or create, our exhibitions. Objects on display are generally borrowed for the length of the show and then returned. We do not have the space and resources to keep everything. We do have a small collection of local sports memorabilia, pertinent news clippings, pictures and other artifacts that tell the story of the African American community in the Northwest. My favorite is the small stone Wounded Eaglet by sculptor James Washington Jr. that was dropped off by a well meaning board member just after the museum opened. We were able to keep that one. But what do we do with everything else? How are we still able to keep the things that matter the most – in our case, personal stories, and still provide the public with access to them?

The Northwest African American Museum is now located in the remodeled bottom level of the three story historic building.

This summer NAAM is partnering with the Garfield RecTech/ARC Summer Youth Video Internship Program. Garfield High School was identified as an ideal School Partner because of their video production activities and a coordinated collaboration with the youth internship program. The program takes place at Garfield Community Center and runs each summer with funding from the city and a crew of high school students from Garfield High School just around the corner. The students will attend a series of classes to interview local Tuskegee Airmen who have settled in the area, and also record their stories.

The product of their work will be a new online curriculum packet that discusses the history and contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen with focus on local Airmen including video links and downloads that includes interviews with local Airmen. These brave pilots were trained and served during WWII, so it is important to say that this project is indeed timely.  The Sam Bruce Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen was named for an Airman who was a Garfield High School graduate and the Chapter will serve as a resource for the project.

Lt Col Ed Drummond, Tuskegee Airmen, and Katie Williams stand in the Journey Gallery at NAAM.

It has always been a goal among the staff at NAAM to develop an oral history program, and also start a youth project that focuses on collecting oral histories. This project is especially exciting because it fulfills those two goals and lays the groundwork for future programming. Best of all, these amazing stories from our local Tuskegee Airmen will be preserved and accessible on our website to everyone, including those not able to come to the museum.

When thinking about how to make collections accessible to the community, the goal is sometimes not about the object, but the stories that those objects represent, and more importantly, the person behind them.

Katie Williams is not a Curator, but a Museum Educator, at the Northwest African American Museum.



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