The African American Museum in Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ($14)
February 14, 2015
The permanent exhibit, “Audacious Freedom,” which starts on the first floor of the African-American Museum in Philadelphia, focuses, similarly to the museum in Alexandria, on local African-American history and contributions to American history in the first century, 1776-1876. In the Timeline Gallery, a narrator explains Philadelphia’s African-American community’s political, religious, educational, social, and other developments while spotlights are shined on relevant images inside of an enormous 3-dimensional collage of images of historical figures like FrederickDouglass, Harriet Tubman, Henry “Box” Brown, and others; newspaper clippings; drawings; signs; buildings; and other relevant images across the entire back wall of the room.
Another major element of this exhibit is on the second floor of the museum in the Conversations gallery. In this gallery are nine human-sized screens positioned inside of window or door frames on which museum visitors see actors playing the important historical figures described in the earlier part of the exhibit like Octavius Catto and Richard Allen telling their own stories. Visitors can press buttons to get certain questions answered by these figures. These displays are certainly like nothing I had ever seen. I can imagine that child visitors are tickled seeing the actors in costume and in character addressing them directly.
The third floor of the museum houses the temporary exhibit, which, for my visit, was “As We See It: Selected Works from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art.” This exhibit had a heavy emphasis on children and was geared toward offering them opportunities to think about, interact with, and create art. There were numerous sketchpads and building toys scattered around. There was even a mirror with a chair in front of it designed to entice visitors to draw their portraits. An available kid-friendly art appreciation handout was titled, “Looking at Art: A Guide to Help You ‘See.’” I felt so knowledgeable when I saw a work by Elizabeth Catlett, whom you surely remember from my previous post, in this exhibit. What stood out most to me, though, was a discussion I heard between a tour guide and a group of children approximately seven to ten years old.
The guide walked with the children to see to Camille Billops’s etching, I’m Black. I’m Black. I’m Dangerously Black. She asked the children questions about the image. One girl said the picture was not pretty because it has no colors, and the group discussed whether a work of art’s beauty is dependent on the number of colors it includes. Then, the guide read the children the title, I’m Black. I’m Black. I’m Dangerously Black, and asked for their thoughts. The tour guide generously honored every contribution. One clever child suggested that the subject of the picture had neglected to apply adequate sunscreen. Finally, just as the guide was preparing to lead them to the next piece, one of the smallest boys asked enthusiastically, “Do you know what’s amazing about this picture?” The guide, of course, took this bait and asked, “What?” He responded, “There are so many things hiding.” Of course that insight earned him some well-deserved praise. I was struck that art gives children a unique opportunity to imagine and explore. This museum and all of its exhibits and galleries offer wonderful opportunities for children to do just that.
Check out this video for more about the museum and Philadelphia’s Black history:
Check back next Monday, April 20, for a look at Mother Bethel AME Church.