As the United States copes with the impact of rapid climate change, cultural institutions straddling the coast face an uncertain future. For museums protecting and preserving African and African American history and culture, the challenges of climate change are often heightened. Older buildings, fewer financial resources and smaller teams impact their ability to stand up to rising sea levels, higher temperatures and severe storms.
“Many African American-focused and African art museums were founded in the communities they serve,” Vedet Coleman-Robinson, executive director of the Association of African American Museums, said. “Several of them sit along the shores where enslaved Africans were brought to the United States hundreds of years ago, and they occupy the very grounds up and down the coast where people resisted inequality and fought for their freedom. Today, these histories are in danger of being washed away because some of these institutions lack the resources to proactively combat the effects of climate change.”
The Association of African American Museums (AAAM) supports institutions that are committed to sharing African and African American stories. Through professional development and other networking opportunities, the non-profit organization helps members find financial resources and educates them about fundraising and other opportunities to help them overcome obstacles and advance their goals. Many AAAM member institutions have faced structural threats caused by climate change.
AAAM member Noelle Trent, the president and CEO of the Museum of African American History | Boston & Nantucket, routinely considers climate change as she makes institutional decisions. The Museum includes Beacon Hill’s Abiel Smith School (1835), the country’s oldest public school built for African American children; Boston African Meeting House (1806), the oldest remaining Black church in the U.S.; the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham Home (1774); and the Nantucket African Meeting House (1825). The properties present a unique set of challenges because of their ages and locations.
“I’m looking for these buildings to exist in another hundred years, so the decisions that I make today will impact what the buildings are tomorrow,” Trent said. “If these buildings were gone, the story of Beacon Hill would feel incomplete. We’re part of the city landscape, so it is incredibly important people view it through that lens. Mitigation measures are investments in the survivability of the community.”
Banneker-Douglass Museum (BDM) is integral to Annapolis, Maryland’s historic district. The original museum was housed within the former Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church in the heart of historic Annapolis–constructed in 1874 by a congregation of free African Americans whose roots go back to 1799.
Chanel Compton, BDM’s executive director, appreciates AAAM’s support as she commits to maintaining such an important fixture of Maryland’s African American history.
“If it weren’t for AAAM, I question what the state of African American museums would be,” said Compton. “AAAM has been transformational for the Banneker-Douglass Museum. The network is strong, the leadership is strong and the resources they provide are incredible. AAAM advocates for African American Museums, and they are more than equipped to be the voice when it comes to climate change and its impact on African American museums.”
AAAM members are hopeful for community, local, state and federal support as they prepare for changing weather patterns. As funding goes to efforts such as reducing emissions and increasing renewable energy, museum leaders look forward to a time when organizations will deploy resources to help institutions that are pivotal to U.S. history.
“The upcoming 250th anniversary of the country is a critical time to do this. It’s not just about what happened in 1776, but it’s about what the country has been since then,” Trent said. “The small museum community is a central part of that story. Mitigation measures implemented now will save these icons that many people take for granted. If you’re concerned about business and tourism, we are directly influencing these areas.”
For more than four decades, the Association of African American Museums has built a network of individuals and institutions that safeguard and share African and African American history and culture. Today, many of these institutions and their objects are at the mercy of floods, storms and other weather events spawned by climate change.
“This threat is exacerbated by limited access to resources,” Coleman-Robinson said. “AAAM’s members are tenacious and stand as trailblazers in their communities and the museum field. As the race to slow climate change becomes even more dire, AAAM continues to ensure its members remain resilient and nimble.”
About the Association of African American Museums
Located in Washington, D.C., the Association of African American Museums (AAAM) is a non-profit member organization established to support African and African American-focused museums nationally and internationally and the professionals who protect, preserve and interpret African and African American art, history and culture.