America’s Black Holocaust Museum, which closed in 2008 because of financial problems, has reopened in a virtual space where users can interact and contribute in 21st- century ways.
Thanks to seven volunteers and a $10,000 grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the Milwaukee museum is continuing its mission of providing access to key parts of black history, from pre-captivity in Africa to slavery in the U.S. through segregation and legal rights, on a newly launched website.
The museum is adding interactive features, from photographs and videos to educational games and comment sections. Users can ask questions of curators and also contribute their own information, for instance by adding details about a lynching victim or uploading a video or text about the impact of the museum’s founder on their lives and thoughts. A panel of scholars will be reviewing submissions to decide whether to include a contribution online.
Fran Kaplan, a museum board member, said Sunday that the invention came out of necessity for the struggling museum, where board members continued to brainstorm ways to revive the institution after the doors officially closed.
“We got a graphic designer involved and a web director involved. We have filmmakers involved. It’s kind of snowballed,” she said. “We’re just learning what can be done. We started searching around for what kind of interactive pieces we can provide. None of us ever thought we would be involved in video gaming, but it turns out they’re great ways to teach and for people to understand things on a visceral level – and attract young people, which is what we want to do.”
Museum organizers hope emerging filmmakers will contribute five-minute movies on various topics.
“Part of the goal of the museum is to help people get a more visceral understanding of what the black holocaust means and to personalize it more,” Kaplan said. “We think film can really do that.”
As a novelty, the website also includes a “breaking news” section, where history is put in a contemporary context so visitors better understand how it relates to their lives.
Visitors also can interact with exhibits by submitting comments and questions for the scholars responsible for each exhibit at the foot of every exhibit page. That allows people to debate different interpretations of history, Kaplan said. Comments will be reviewed before they’re posted and “hate speech” will be added to a separate, contemporary exhibit, she said.
Board members hope a future step is to open a gift shop featuring local artists.
The museum drew 25,000 visitors a year at its former location at 2233 N. 4th St. It documents African-American history and the injustices suffered by Blacks in America. It was founded in the 1980s by the only known survivor of a lynching, James Cameron, who was nearly hanged by White racists as a teenager in Marion, Ind., in 1930. Funding for the museum dried up after Cameron died in 2006, and foundation support dwindled.
The museum is still exploring places to put on satellite exhibits, including at the Mitchell International Airport.
In the meantime, people can visit online.
“We hope it’ll be a point of pride for the community. We’ll have a much more accessible, wider reach,” Kaplan said.
Black Holocaust Museum
To visit the online museum: go to abhmuseum.org.
To contribute : The museum accepts contributions. The board also seeks volunteers to help keep up the museum’s Twitter account, raise funds and to do clerical work.
Visit the museum’s website and click on “Contribute,” or email Fran Kaplan at email@example.com.