African American Museum of Philadelphia

With the mission that “brings diverse communities together in greater appreciation of the Black experience through the combined narrative of art culture and historical witness”, the African American Museum of Philadelphia is, according to its website, the “first institution funded and built by a major municipality to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage of African Americans”. 

Previously known as the Afro-American Historical & Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when Dr. Charles Wesley signed on as its founding director in 1974, greater than 10,000 people would attend the Museum’s opening celebration and grand opening in the summer of 1976.  The founding of the African American Museum of Philadelphia coincided with the Bicentennial celebration of the United States and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

In order to actualize its vision to “be an integral asset of the Philadelphia cultural landscape that makes a meaningful impact on visitors’ lives as they experience the stories of people of African descent through art, history and culture”, the museum utilizes its galleries and auditorium space to engage the community.  These galleries and space provide enlightenment centered upon one of the three themes that the Museum, according to its literature, specifically emphasizes: the Africa Diaspora, the Philadelphia Story and the Contemporary Narrative. 

These three themes are further delineated by sub-themes of “architecture, arts and entertainment, family life, law, medicine, politics, religion and technology”.  The African American Museum of Philadelphia presents themes that impact Black life, from Africa to the present and includes themes of resistance and creativity as exemplified by the powerful Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Arts movements.

This museum contains a permanent exhibit, Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia, 1776-1876, that presents the lives and accounts of African-Americans and their involvement in building the United States.  Visitors, through the use of technology, artifacts, images and sound, learn of this involvement via stories of African-Americans such as minister, Richard Allen (1760-1831), and educator and equal rights activist Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871).  Allen, also an educator and writer, was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent, Black denomination in the United States.  It was in Philadelphia where Allen opened his first church. 

Octavius V. Catto served as the principal at the Institute for Colored Youth, the institution where he received his education.  Founded in 1837, the Institute, which is presently known as Cheyney University, is the oldest African-American institution of higher learning.  Having been a teacher prior to leading the institute, Catto would later become known as a stellar cricket and baseball player, even managing the Philadelphia Pythians, a Negro League baseball club.  Tragically, Catto would be murdered when Irish members of the Democratic Party, which was anti-Reconstruction, attacked Black men for attempting to cast their votes for Republican candidates during election day.

There is a constant change in special exhibits and these works, as per its website, “explore African-American history, social issues and the Africa Diaspora through fine art, multimedia displays, historic artifacts and informative panels.”  One of these exhibits recently presented is Self-Evident by Sonya Clark, who currently is a professor of art and art history at Amherst College and the featured Artist-in-Residence at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, also located in Philadelphia.  This exhibit contains prior and new pieces that combine visual art with American history. 

Clark’s pieces are especially significant as they connect the Museum’s founding in 1976 and its historic location with the bicentennial of Philadelphia.  The museum, which is located just several blocks away from The Liberty Bell, is a most appropriate site to show Clark’s collection. As the Museum’s literature states, she “is acutely aware of the Museum’s time and place as she asserts her ancestry and humanity in new work that re-examines James Weldon Johnson’s, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, also known as “The Negro National Anthem”.  Sonya Clark’s brilliance is ‘rooted’ in her use of the familiar to invoke the intangible.  Her body of work is re-telling and calling back redacted history, using music, light and hair – the literal fiber of her being – to simultaneously look at the past and present while hinting at the future.”  

Three exciting activities that further supported Clark’s work showcased at the African American Museum of Philadelphia were “Sounding the Ancestors” and “Saturday with Sonya Clark”.  The former activity featured acclaimed musicians: award-winning and MacArthur Fellow, violinist Regina Carter, and composer and pianist, Jason Moran, who is active in multimedia art installations.  In its promotional statement, the museum discussed how the trio of Clark, Carter and Moran utilized sound and imagery to engage attendees to interrogate the connections integral among memory, music and the body.  This performance also asked attendees to “consider the ways identity is woven through image, cloth, text and sound to merge sensory experience with historic symbols – an exploration and celebration of artistic expression and African American identity.  The second activity was a gallery tour and discussion with Clark and the third activity was a public lecture by Sonya Clark, followed by a live performance of the jazz band, The Onus.

Although Self Evident was curated by Dejay B. Duckett, the Director of Exhibitions at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, another special exhibit which specifically highlights the Africa Diaspora, Do or Die, was a collaboration of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston and the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University.  The traveling exhibition is created by Fahamu Pecou, a visual artist and scholar whose works combine fine arts and hip-hop culture to examine aspects of identity, including race and gender.  By featuring Do or Die as a special exhibit the museum supports Pecou’s stance, in words, art and action, to provide an alternative view of Black life and its passing.  In its literature, the museum states that “through performance, painting, drawing and video, Pecou reframes our view, incorporating references from Yoruba/Ifa ritual, to cultural retentions of hip-hop, to the philosophy of Négritude.  Using these elements, Pecou shapes a story that seeks to affirm life via an understanding of the balance between life and death.”

Additionally, visitors to the African American Museum of Philadelphia may enjoy book signings, film screenings as well as educational workshops, professional seminars and concerts.  Mementos of your visit may be purchased in their gift shop.  Families with children may enjoy participating in the monthly Macy’s Family Fun Day, which is when the African American Museum of Philadelphia, according to its site, offers a “full suite of fun family activities included with the price of admission”.  The Family Fun Day occurs on the second Saturday of every month and involves “hands-on activities, interactive music and movement workshops, storytellers, historical re-enactors, and more … a Family Fun Day may focus on a particular theme or may simply celebrate the breadth and depth of the Africa Diaspora.”