It took Shirley Burke three years to decide to donate the violin once owned and played by her enslaved great-grandfather to a museum, where it would be properly cared for and available for many others to appreciate.
But when Burke finally gave it away, she chose the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and not her local African American museum in Detroit.
“I wanted to put it in a place where more people would have access to it, and more people will go to D.C.,” said Burke, 73, a retired high school assistant principal who lives in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield.
Burke’s choice of the Smithsonian museum over the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History didn’t surprise the Wright museum’s president and chief executive, Juanita Moore.
“There’s no jealousy at all,” Moore said. “It is so important for her and her family for that to be part of the national story.”
This is a scenario playing out across the country, as hundreds of African American museums grapple with the arrival of the new national museum, opening on the Mall on Sept. 24. Regional and local organizations can’t compete with NMAAHC’s national profile, its prominent location or its Smithsonian pedigree, and as a result, they’ve watched it snag gifts of family heirlooms and cold cash, sometimes from their most ardent supporters.
But they’ve also received benefits from the newest — and largest — African American museum, including funding for conferences, training workshops and internships for young museum professionals. Its opening will generate national headlines and interest in the African American story, and they hope some of that attention will spill over to their institutions.
“We look at the national museum as our champion on a national level,” said Leslie Guy, chief curator at the DuSable, in Chicago, the nation’s oldest African American museum.
There are almost 300 museums in the United States focused on African American history, art and culture, according to Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums. Most are small community organizations with volunteer or small staffs focused on local missions, although there are a handful of larger institutions in cities such as Baltimore, New York and Detroit. The museums work together, through the association, on everything from collection care to education and exhibitions, Black said. When the NMAAHC opens, it will become the largest in terms of budget, building and visitors, but it will be treated the same as its peers.
“We share things we normally share,” he said about the members’ relationships with the national museum. “It’s not so much a competition kind of thing. They’re going to do it anyway, so you might as well work with them.”
The NMAAHC has supported the national organization for many years, providing office space, conference funding, scholarships and administrative support, according to Deborah Mack, NMAAHC’s associate director for community and constituent services. Her office assists individual museums and state and regional networks to strengthen programs and staff. The museum works with historically black colleges and universities, too.
“It’s been gratifying to see when we, as a Smithsonian institution, partner” with a local organization, Mack said. “It brings a lot of visibility or new support for what has been an excellent program all along.”
Government agencies and local funders are influenced by the Smithsonian brand. “They see them differently, or see them for the first time in a way that they weren’t aware before,” she said. “It’s a great leveraging of resources.”
But the institutions are often in competition, especially when it comes to donations. In this arena, the larger ones have an edge. NMAAHC has been seeking gifts from individuals and foundations for more than a decade, Black noted, and it will continue to do so after the opening.
“I’ve heard the concern . . . that people in their local areas might be more inclined to donate to the Smithsonian because the name has cachet,” Black said. “I think that will remain a concern, and it will probably heighten once the museum opens and all the attention is on them and every one wants to participate in that shiny new thing.”
Gerald B. Smith, the founding chairman of the Houston Museum of African American Culture, made a gift of $1 million to the national museum with his wife, Anita, and family. Smith said he wanted to be part of a historic effort.
“Those of us, people of color who have the opportunity and the resources to give, should give,” he said. “The national museum has a broader perspective, a broader audience, a broader agenda. It is for all the people.”
The Smithsonian museum has raised $252 million of its $270 million goal, including major gifts from American Express, Target, Bank of America and Caterpillar. Other African American museums don’t quarrel with these grants because “corporate monies have not been accessible to African American museums historically,” Black said.
The national museum has enjoyed an advantage in acquisitions, too. The NMAAHC has built its 35,000-piece collection from scratch by purchasing items, uncovering new artifacts and courting donors to give their art or family heirlooms.
“As a curator and historian, I have a bone to pick with them because there are things that I’ve lost to that institution,” said Charles Bethea, director of collections and exhibitions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore. “I say that with a smile. It’s what we do, and I understand.”
The Smithsonian’s deep pockets, wealthy friends and national profile give it an edge. It could outbid other museums when rare artifacts came up for auction. And its curators landed gifts of art because they could boast that the works would be on display on the Mall.
Its Save Our African American Treasures program crisscrossed the country, encouraging people to bring their family treasures to curators and learn how to preserve them. Burke brought her great-grandfather’s violin to the Detroit Public Library as part of that program. She told NMAAHC curator Rex Ellis that it was given to her ancestor, Jesse Burke, by his owner, Elijah Burke, and that Jesse would play it while his wife, Millie, danced for their owners in North Carolina. She decided to give it to the museum that would attract the most visitors. The Smithsonian is expected to attract several million visitors a year; the Wright Museum in Detroit attracted 270,213 visitors in 2015.
Museum officials say some of the benefits from the NMAAHC are intangible. “A seated president is talking in favor of museums, the importance of a museum,” Bethea said.
The opening provides an opportunity to take stock of their own programs, said Andrea Taylor, president and chief executive of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. When it opens, the NMAAHC immediately becomes the standard-bearer for African American museums, and it will force its colleagues to update their programs and improve their technology, she said.
“We may need to regroup and think about our strategies,” Taylor said. “But it’s like having more than one restaurant on a block. They cluster together and everyone does better.”
Bethea, whose museum is just 30 miles away in Baltimore, says the opening may draw his audience away initially, but he believes the curiosity factor will fade.
The NMAAHC “can’t tell every story,” Bethea said. “Their job is to tell a broader story and push people toward local institutions, which tell the stories of their regions.”
To be successful, they will need to adapt. Moore, head of Detroit’s Wright Museum, laughs when asked about her organization’s boast that it is the “world’s largest museum dedicated to the African American experience.”
“Until Sept. 24,” she said, noting the day President Obama is expected to cut the ribbon on the $540 million building.
“And we’re good with that, honestly,” she said. “Would I rather have the [national] museum, or say we’re the largest?” she asked. “The museum, no ifs ands or buts.”