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Pros speak on slave museum
African-American museum professionals weigh in on ingredients for a good start-up

Date published: 8/30/2004


RALEIGH, N.C.--Experts in the field of African-American museums say two things are essential in creating a new facility--garnering community support from the start and getting help from someone who has been through the process.

In seminars and interviews at the recent Association of African American Museums annual conference, those two points consistently emerged.

Without community support, the experts say, organizers can find themselves running into resistance. And without assistance from someone who has been through the process of moving from concept to opening--which often takes 10 to 15 years--museum officials can find themselves making costly missteps.

"I think a big mistake people make is moving too far along before bringing in people who have done this before," said John E. Fleming, who has helped develop several museums, including Cincinnati's new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

"Once you are under construction, change becomes very expensive," he said. "Changing ideas is cheap. Changing construction costs a lot."

No one from the U.S. National Slavery Museum attended the AAAM annual conference Aug. 18-21. Executive Director Vonita W. Foster said the dates conflicted with her other demands.

Last Monday was opening night for the first major display of items collected so far by slavery museum officials. The free exhibition runs at the University of Mary Washington's Ridderhof Martin Gallery through Oct. 8.

Foster said in an interview last week that she agrees community support is important and she's been reaching out to both the community and experts since being hired one year ago.

"You do have to do that, and that's what I've been doing," she said. "It's a give-and-take. You have to continue doing that."

Among her efforts has been meeting with the local educators, including personnel from the city of Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties and the University of Mary Washington. She also has reached out to some local cultural institutions and said she has developed a relationship with the personnel at Kenmore Plantation, the Fredericksburg home of George Washington's sister.

Foster said she also created a consortium of higher-education institutions, including Brown University, the University of Virginia, Chicago State, Norfolk State, Virginia Commonwealth University, Howard University, Hampton University and UMW.

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