The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (MAAH), which opened in Detroit in April 1997, has been acclaimed as the nation’s most important black history museum in numerous descriptive accounts, but, with a few notable exceptions, has not received much critical attention. This is due, perhaps, to the very nature of the subject: Americans have been largely unable or ambivalent about coming to terms with the history of American slavery and its legacy, as evidenced by the debate, from 1984 to 1994, over an African-American museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.; the 1997 debate over Representative Tony Hall’s (D-Ohio) proposal to the House that a resolution of apology to African-Americans be made for the past trauma of slavery; and the recent vote by the state of Mississippi to retain the Confederate symbol as part of its flag. Thus, anyone criticizing an institution dedicated to “the celebration of African American achievement” needs to tread carefully. Still, it is necessary to examine the key assumptions underlying the exhibition and to ask, What are the ideological premises guiding the historical narrative? Where, in particular, does this narrative lead? Has critical inquiry been sacrificed in the interest of celebration?
The $38.4 million structure was funded by taxpayer dollars as well as by individual and corporate donations. Designed by the African-American firm Sims-Varner Architects of Detroit, it houses two galleries for temporary exhibitions, a rotunda and 100-foot dome patterned after an African hut, a 317-seat theater, classrooms, a research library, a museum store, and a café. The museum’s main and permanent exhibition, titled “Of the People: The African American Experience,” covers sixteen thousand square feet and illustrates subjects from fourteenth-century African history to contemporary black culture in the United States. In its first three weeks of operation, it attracted a hundred thousand visitors to see such artifacts as the rusted shackles used to hold slaves on a plantation in Virginia; the flight suit worn in 1987 by Mae Jemison, the nation’s first black female astronaut; a reproduction of the door to the jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was held; a case full of inventions by African-Americans, such as the stoplight and the gas mask; and—the central exhibit—a seventy-foot model slave ship inscribed with the names of more than two thousand slave ships that made the journey known as the Middle Passage from West Africa to the New World over a period of four hundred years.
Designed by Ralph Appelbaum, the exhibition is meant to provide African-Americans with a history that goes beyond the brutal victimization of slavery and that can generate a sense of positive identity and collective achievement. The section of the exhibition that represents the slave trade and slavery in the United States, as Charles Pete Banner-Haley points out, follows the o...
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