A recent Saturday morning found me standing in front of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Washington Park, waiting for a man who, due to a miscommunication, was at that moment waiting in North Lawndale.
A quick phone call sorted the confusion out, and rather than race across town, we postponed. The remainder of my morning suddenly freed just as the museum’s revolving door was being unbolted. I sensed an opportunity.
I’d be more reluctant to admit that up to that point I’d never visited the DuSable museum if I thought it made me some kind of freakish anomaly. To be honest, I consider myself exceptional in that I sincerely wanted to see the place but never had an occasion to go, never heard of any exhibit that caught my interest and seemed worth making the trip.
I imagine a number of Chicagoans must succumb to the racism of low expectations when it comes to the DuSable, picturing something akin to the House on the Rock, up in Wisconsin, an aggregation of random artifacts, maybe with slightly skewed typewritten cards explaining them.
Frankly, I was content to stay away. What if I went to the museum and didn’t like it? What then? Volunteer myself as the White Guy Who Didn’t Like the DuSable Museum? No upside there. Or worse, cough silently into my fist and say nothing, itself a kind of racism?
Turns out, my fears outstripped reality, as fears often do. The museum has an in-depth exhibit on Black soldiers in World War I, with original letters and a real rifle. An interesting display on Civil Rights and redlining. A movie that places you in the 1963 March on Washington. Professionally done. A newish interactive display about life in an African village — albeit an idealized, Black Panther-ish village — held my attention.
And yet ... 38 minutes later I made the obligatory tour of the gift shop and was out front, sucking on my front teeth, forming my thoughts, which could be summarized as:
It could be better. It should be better.
“The building should be better,” agreed Perri Irmer, DuSable’s president and CEO. “You’re not wrong at all.” She said the museum has been improving. “It’s like night and day, compared to what it was, exponentially better. The way this place used to be, we had an African exhibit that sat there for 35 years, unchanged.”
Irmer has led the museum for seven years this September. “We have opened 30 new exhibits, literally unheard of for the DuSable.”
There are three classes of museum in Chicago.
There are the Big Three: The Art Institute, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, obligatory cultural landmarks that residents and visitors return to again and again, or should.
There are fine secondary museums — the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago History Museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, hidden gems that reward anyone finding their way to them.
Then there is the third rung, oddball outposts that most Chicagoans never consider visiting. Some are intended for a narrow audience: The Holocaust Museum, designed to deliver a few watered-down spoonfuls of the Crime of the 20th Century to busloads of fidgety 5th graders and teach them about bullying.
Some are commercial ventures or quixotic personal quests — The Writer’s Museum, the Pritzker Military Museum an example of each. Some are just strange: the International Museum of Surgical Science comes to mind, a creepy time warp, Marcus Welby, M.D.’s gall bladder preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde.
The DuSable takes up the rear of this third group when, given its vital and compelling subject matter, it ought to be front and center in the second.
Blame lack of money.
“We’ve been practicing alchemy for a long time,” Irmer said. “Doing as much as we can with the little we have. I have half the employees I really need. We’ve never been sufficiently funded, but we’re doing really great work, beautiful exhibits.”
I suggested there is nothing wrong with the DuSable that $50 million won’t fix.
“Exactly,” she said. “That’s exactly it. To give us a way to be able to exhale.”
An architect and lawyer, Irmer sees the stakes clearly: “The importance of our mission to the Black community and to all of Chicago, at this time in history, when so many people on the far right are trying to deny history, trying to prevent people from exercising the right to learn history, it’s even more important that institutions like ours are able to get the support that is needed so we can function at the highest levels.”
They are busy developing collaborations, with the MCA, with international companies. She pointed to the new Equiano exhibit, a celebration of life in an Igbo village paid for by an Israeli film company.
“We were contacted by them, little over two years ago, to see if we would be willing to work with them on this film,” she said. “What you typically find in an American version of our history always starts with the slave trade. What that means is the Black person’s perception of themselves is rooted in slavery, as opposed to being rooted in freedom. It makes all the difference in the world when you acknowledge that you were a free people, with culture, with beauty, with art, with joy, before the crimes of slavery were committed.”
The opportunity is there. The 1880 Daniel Burnham Roundhouse sits across the street, raw space that would quintuple the museum’s 10,000 square feet of display area. If only they could find the $20 million to $30 million or so needed to completely renovate it.
“It’s not a ton of money for the state of Illinois,” Irmer said. “Not a ton of money for a billionaire.”
We talked for almost an hour, and I can only scratch the surface of the conversation. Irmer certainly has vision. A much-needed South Side music venue. Plans to extend the campus to the Midway. To create a community of artists and artisans. A Chicago museum to complement the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.
It all comes back to money needed to fill the gaping hole the DuSable could fill. Must fill.
“Being relevant to the 90% of Chicago public school students who are Black and Brown,” Irmer said of her goal. “That’s the biggest message I want to put out there: How important these stories are to contributing to a healing and a progress and a positive perspective of cities, of Black cities, of Black children’s self-image.
“It can’t just be what they see on the evening news. Otherwise we’re going nowhere, and nothing is going to change. I see us as members of the resistance. Every child, no matter what color they are, has a right to learn history, has a right to learn what happened, why we are where we are and how we get somewhere better and different.”
Right now, I can’t in good conscience urge Chicagoans to check out the DuSable. It isn’t there yet. But it needs to be. It could be. The history is there, radiating off the page, waiting to be turned into museum magic.
Now all they need is money.