While America’s Black Holocaust Museum has remained closed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, national discussions around systemic racism and social justice have caused the museum to take on a new role in the community, said president and chief executive officer Bert Davis.
Davis said the museum has stepped up as a convener of discussions on race and inequality in the community over the past year, even as COVID has delayed the grand reopening of its new facility in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville district.
Davis shared an update on ABHM and an outlook for museums nationally during a discussion hosted Monday by the Greater Milwaukee Committee.
The role of museums is shifting, Davis said, from not only dispensing information about history and culture to also helping people wrestle with those topics.
“It has converted the thinking of people who work in museums and cultural institutions to become more socially active, to actually be conveners of some of these very difficult conversations,” Davis said, pointing to the pandemic and deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as catalyzing that change. “So, … quite frankly, our mission is to create this awareness of disparities, which have come to the fore because of COVID and because of George Floyd, but our vision is to provide opportunity to have the discussions.”
ABHM has hosted book clubs in recent months to that end, with a large majority of participants being white area residents.
“They are dying to have this conversation,” Davis said.
Another unintended consequence of its doors being closed, ABHM has been able to expand its reach to a wider audience, including people from outside of the Milwaukee area. According to the American Alliance of Museums, 30% of museums nationally have reported significant demographic changes among the people accessing their content during the pandemic. Davis said the question is how to maximize that new reach, as museums have traditionally relied on memberships and in-person admissions as their main source of revenue.
“It cuts both ways,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out how we garner the best monetary positioning for this change. Because, quite frankly, this trend is not going to be a trend; it’s going to be a mode of operation for us in the future.”
Financial sustainability for ABHM will likely come from keeping overhead costs down, Davis said. The museum has three employees and relies heavily on contractors.
Originally, ABHM planned its opening for the Democratic National Convention last summer, seeing it as a strategic opportunity to showcase Milwaukee’s history to visitors. But, the DNC was ultimately relegated to a virtual event, and the museum lost two of its vendors because of the pandemic, Davis said.
“They still had three exhibits to fabricate and install, so everything went to a screeching halt,” he said.
Now, the museum is on track to open sometime in the fall, he said.
The museum has been closed since 2008, two years after the death of its founder Dr. James Cameron. Cameron, who survived a lynching in 1930 when he was 16 years old, founded the original America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee in 1988. It is in the process of reopening at the same location of its predecessor at the corner of Vel R. Phillips and North avenues.
Retaining a small staff “saved” the museum in 2020, Davis said, noting it finished the year in the black.
“I think the model is going to be lean and mean, have a cadre of consultants that can come in that are dedicated to your mission and then your overhead is low but the functionality is still there,” he said.
Partnerships will also play a key role in the museum’s future, Davis said. ABHM and the Milwaukee Public Museum recently partnered to bring a global-touring Nelson Mandela exhibition to the city for its debut. The exhibit, which is on view at MPM through Aug. 1, features unseen film, photos and more than 150 historical artifacts on loan from the freedom fighter’s family, museums and archives.
Davis recalled when MPM president and CEO Ellen Censky reached out to him about the idea of partnering on the project.
“You had me at ‘Mandela,’” Davis recalled saying. “‘I don’t care what it is, you guys are bringing something about Nelson Mandela to Milwaukee. We’re in.”
The partnership has been symbiotic, Davis said, with ABHM being able to bring in its stakeholders to make sure the exhibit reaches more community members.
“It’s helped us to continue to be part of the programming space even though we’re not open yet,” he said.
It’s also drawn unsolicited gifts from ABHM donors, who might ordinarily have requested a grant proposal from the museum.
“They were like ‘No grant, here’s a check. Because you’re in this space, we need you in this space, and we need you to work and help with other organizations,’” Davis said of donors.
“So partnership, I think, is going to be our salvation on all these fronts because we will have more strength and more power in terms of raising funds, but then we can cross-fertilize and cross-pollinate all of these great programs that we’re used to doing, and we’ve been islands in doing but now it necessitates that we not be islands anymore.”