This post is a part of the AAHC Forum. In the coming months we will invite current and past grantees to contribute their project experiences via blog posts on our UpNext Blog and then ask you to respond through the AAHC Virtual Forum. We hope you will add your voice and share your needs and opinions so that AAHC can continue to help African American museums thrive. Please visit the AAHC forum to continue the conversation.
By: Robby Luckett
Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University
In July 2010, members of the Margaret Walker Center family met for a two-day retreat and charrette to lay out a five-year strategic plan leading to 2015, the centennial year of Margaret Walker, who founded us in 1968. One of the primary results of the charrette was the realization that the Center, a museum and archive on the campus of Jackson State University, faced two fundamental problems: the sustainability and the growth of its more than 40 manuscript collections and nearly 2,000 oral histories.
In the oldest building on the JSU campus and one that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977, the Margaret Walker Center faces serious heating, cooling, plumbing, wiring, and space issues. Without the proper environmental controls in place and without the room to pursue new substantial collections, we realized that our future as a research center was at stake, so we decided to apply for an IMLS African American History and Culture grant. With the help of our archivist and the Jackson State architect, I wrote a grant to create a feasibility study for a new museum and archive that would encompass all historic collections at Jackson State, including the University’s official archives as well as the Center’s special collections.
Our IMLS grant allowed a team from JSU—faculty, staff, and students—to visit sister institutions across the country. Over the past year and a half, we have toured archives, museums, college campuses, and cultural institutions of all shapes and sizes in more than 20 cities from coast to coast. Along the way we learned an immense amount about best practices in our field (and sometimes not-the-best practices), and we met a wonderful community of people deeply engaged in the preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of history and culture. As an academic historian and not someone trained in public history, I had a lot to learn. Luckily, everyone we met was willing to share their experiences in the field and to talk about what they do well and what they wished they did better.
At every place we visited, we learned things we could use in our plans. Most importantly, we’ve realized that we do not want to be a static museum or archive that serves as a passive repository for historic collections. We want to be a place that invites our community to use the facility as it sees fit and to offer and implement ideas for engaging programming. We want our doors to be open and attractive to anyone who is interested in what’s inside. Artist studios and exhibit spaces will be made available for community members so that the arts can be on display. Classrooms and a lecture hall will make learning a central part of the experience at the Margaret Walker Center. Rooftop and interior spaces for receptions and a courtyard for public use will complement a state-of-the-art archive and research space. In all of these ways, we hope that the Margaret Walker Center will reflect all of the good work and best practices that are happening around the country and be a model for future museums and archives wherever they may be.