In the documentary series “Great Museums,” Dr. Margaret Burroughs recalled how she and her husband Charles first began to display items from their travels to Africa: “In 1961 when we opened up in my living room, we started with what we had… and people began bringing us things once they knew what we were trying to do.” The collection that Burroughs established in her living room became the DuSable Museum of African American History–the first black history museum in the country. In 1970, the DuSable moved into a former Park District building located at 740 E. 56th Place. The museum doubled its size 20 years later with the completion of the Harold Washington Wing. But even with the newer wing, 70 percent of the DuSable’s collection must remain in storage, and the museum is still unable to accommodate some larger traveling exhibits.
In the 50 years since the DuSable was founded, over 125 black history museums have opened across the country, many of them with new facilities and large budgets. The renovation of the historic 19th-century roundhouse building that sits next door to the museum’s current location is the DuSable’s latest attempt to keep up with its newer counterparts. Yet after seven years of fundraising and planning, and the appointment of new leadership, the expansion remains unfinished. The logistics of historical legacy are proving difficult to organize. A lot is riding on the project’s success: as the DuSable prepares to grow in space and in scope, it hopes to again establish itself as a leader among the museums it inspired.
The expansion is a work in progress. Construction barricades surrounding the low, earth-toned building feature images and slogans from the DuSable museum’s most recent advertising campaign–passersby are dared to “do something great,” “revolutionary,” or “worthy” alongside pictures of people who did–Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panthers, and the late Margaret Burroughs. Burroughs’ passing came less than a year after the appointment of the museum’s newest CEO, Carol Adams, who conceptualized the ad campaign and has helped restart the expansion project. Cheryl Blackwell Bryson, chairwoman of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, describes Adams as a “heavy-hitter” who knows the “worlds of commerce, politics, and finance.” Adams describes herself as a “namer of things,” explaining that “if you’ve got something good, you need to tell the world about it!” The Board is counting on Adams to–as she puts it–“stand on the shoulders of Dr. Margaret Burroughs [and] help the DuSable realize its vision of becoming one of the world’s great museums.”
The limestone roundhouse building, located just south of the Harold Washington Wing, has seen its fair share of Chicago history. Built in 1880 following the designs of Daniel Burnham, architect of the 1893 World’s Fair Exhibition, the roundhouse is the oldest standing building in Hyde Park. The roundhouse was used as a horse stable for the Washington Park Race Track, which hosted the American Derby from 1884 to 1905. The track was torn down in 1905 when Illinois banned gambling, but the stables were turned over to the Chicago Park District, and remained in their possession until six years ago. When the DuSable obtained ownership of the building in November 2004, it began to collect funds for the $25 million renovation. A $10 million state grant provided part of the funding, but raising the rest of the money was up to them.
A 2004 Hyde Park Herald article announced that the renovations were slated to begin in spring of 2005 “with an eye to a 2007 opening.” When Adams arrived, construction had stalled. She says the state had promised $10 million for the project, but hadn’t delivered. “When I came in it was really important for me to not have a long lull [in the construction]. We worked with the state to get the rest of the money so we could continue.” As of now, the museum has completed the first stage of the expansion, which involved restoring the building to meet the standards of historic preservation. Restoring the building alone cost the DuSable $10 million. “What we gave is so significant, to have rescued and restored the Burnham building,” Adams says proudly. “There was just a centennial celebration for him…we think this will give him the ultimate honor.”
Adams guesses that the roundhouse won’t be ready for two to three more years, but the question of how it will be integrated with the rest of the museum is already being addressed. Bauer Latoza, the architectural firm hired for the project, has been exploring ways to join the two buildings together as one unified museum. In the same 2004 article, the Hyde Park Herald reported on Illinois Representative Bobby Rush’s proposed attempt to connect the buildings–he supposedly earmarked $1 million in a bill passed by Congress for a pedestrian skyway over 57th Street that would link the Harold Washington Wing to the roundhouse. This idea has since been scrapped, replaced by a new plan for the DuSable to “green over” the block that currently separates the two halves of the museum. “In the original plan for the park,” says Adams, “that stretch was supposed to be part of it to begin with. Now we’re doing the necessary research and surveys to present our case before the City Council.”
The building’s unique shape will in part determine its interior organization. According to Sandra Geither, the DuSable’s director of educational services, “The art will be all around you. It produces a feeling of grandeur and openness–the ability to see things all at once. My idea is to have a great flexibility in the space in terms of what we show and how we show it.” The building will have two levels, and will also contain research facilities, a reading room, and a lunchroom.
The roundhouse renovations are the most costly and visible changes the DuSable is making, but they aren’t the only ones. A mobile museum in a bus, which is going to be launched on Founders’ Day and focuses on Jean Baptiste Point du Sable specifically, will visit schools all over the city to teach the children about Chicago’s first permanent resident. Through another initiative, entitled “Making history come alive through the arts,” a roster of resident artists has been contracted to lead workshops for school groups. The museum’s footprint will be further enlarged with webinars created in collaboration with CPS and a virtual museum hosted on the DuSable’s homepage.
The expansion comes at a price. This past September the museum raised its admission fees for the first time in 35 years–adult prices went from $3 a ticket to $10, citing “increased operating expenses”. But the sign above the ticketing desk still reads “Sundays are FREE to ALL,” and Adams insists that the price hike hasn’t negatively affected attendance. “Our community knows we can’t be sustained like that. We’re still cheaper than it is to go to the movies, and people keep coming back.” Any given week, the DuSable will have multiple speakers and panels as well as family-friendly activities. “It’s a very exciting, vibrant place,” says Geither. “We want to reach out and put our arms around more people and more ideas.” She echoes Adams’ hope for the DuSable’s future: “With the roundhouse factor, this can be a world-class destination museum.”
While the DuSable continues in its struggle to construct a new facility and a new image, the Smithsonian is set to begin construction on the largest museum dedicated to African-American culture in the country. The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be the largest of its kind and will be located on the National Mall. In the “Great Museums” film, Lonnie Bunch, the Smithsonian Museum’s director, emphasizes Burroughs’ enormous impact: “She clearly opened doors wide for people like me, and I know that I’m standing on her shoulders. She says you have to understand our story to understand your story. She recognized that what museums do, more than anything else, is legitimize a people’s culture. And if you’re not there, you run the risk of being invisible.”
Burroughs’ wisdom is coming full-circle. The greater visibility of African-American history she helped bring about is now setting expectations for the institution that she founded. So while the DuSable’s expansion is part of a local struggle to maintain the legacy of African-American history, with a wider lens, it’s also a tribute to how far that legacy has come.