By Afea Tucker
PHILADELPHIA — The African American Museum in Philadelphia will reopen its doors on May 6, debuting a new exhibition with limited hours to meet capacity requirements and a new set of procedures to ensure the safety for both guests and employees.
Founded in 1976 in celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial, the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) is the first institution funded and built by a major municipality to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage of African Americans.
“We are thrilled to welcome guests back for in-person experiences at AAMP,” said Sabrina Brooks, Chair of the African American Museum in Philadelphia’s Board of Directors.
The museum’s reopening will mark the launch of a special new exhibition, “Anna Russell Jones: The Art of Design.”
“As a Philadelphia institution dedicated to honoring the history and culture of African American and Black communities, we are deeply committed to teaching, learning and bearing witness to the stories of African Americans and the African Diaspora in all its permutations,” Brooks said.
The “Anna Russell Jones:The Art of Design”, was initially scheduled to premiere March 18, 2020 but due to the COVID-19 shutdowns it never got a chance to open.
“It has been a long road of transition with COVID, but the AAMP team has been working very hard to ensure that we have a safe and enjoyable experience with the public because it’s been some time since we’ve opened the museum doors,” said Brooks.
Despite their physical constraints and other challenges during their closure, AAMP was able to provide new and creative ways to introduce the museum to a wider audience than ever before.
“The pandemic has been very challenging for AAMP, just like all arts and cultural institutions in the industry, however it has helped for us to transition to the virtual programming platforms.”
“We’ve been able to really connect with our members. So the virtual programming, it will continue on even outside of the pandemic. But we really look forward to being able to provide critical content to the public and for the public to be able to experience the museum and its exhibits safely in person. For those that are still slightly hesitant about coming to our doors, we will offer some virtual programming as well,” said Brooks.
The launch of the Anna Russell Jones exhibit coincides with both the ongoing virtual programming and the Museum’s permanent exhibition, ”Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776 — 1876” presented by PECO, which recounts the stories and contributions made by people of African descent in Philadelphia during the tumultuous century following the founding of our nation.
“This is a chance to look at some beautiful designs and get a peek into Anna Russell Jones’s life,” said Dejay Duckett, Director of Curatorial Services at AAMP.
Jones is recognized as the first African American graduate of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which is now Moore College of Art and Design, and an alumna of the anatomy department of Howard Medical School, which is now Howard University College of Medicine. She is also known for her wallpaper and carpet designs, as well as working as a civil service illustrator and freelance artist.
The exhibit will feature original art and design by Jones and will highlight her interest in African American history, civil rights, public service and medicine.
“She was active from the 1920s up until she passed in 1995. Always working, she had her own design studio that she opened for herself. When she didn’t see the opportunities in the 1920s, she created her own. She was just audacious and had this amazing life and grit,” said Duckett.
Following local guidance from the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Centers for Disease Control, people will be able to resume coming into the museum to take full advantage of learning about the history while doing it in a safe and healthy way.
“I’m just excited about our community, being able to come back through our doors, again, we work so hard to make sure that we can keep everyone safe and still have an enjoyable experience at the museum,” said Duckett.
They’ve also made a number of upgrades to the permanent collection “Audacious Freedom” exhibition including installing touch screens. “And we’re just excited to get back to doing what we do best, you know, celebrating African American Art, history and culture,” said Duckett.
“It is truly a celebration because we believe that AAMP and its programming are at the center of the need to heal and provide wellness and rebuilding for our community,” said Brooks.
“We’ve experienced so many traumas recently, I would say collective public traumas with COVID-19 and social injustices just within the last year. So it’s very important for the museum to reopen,” Brooks said. “Our community and our country have been in the process of undergoing a racial reckoning and we’re seeing a greater focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. And for those who are looking for a better way to better understand systemic challenges faced by the Black community and how we can connect in modern times, AAMP is a critical educational resource. So, this opening is symbolic in so many ways, in that we are providing ourselves as a foundation for the Black community, where there’s so much healing that is needed and also being an educational resource, while we do that.”
“We are excited for this time. This is a time where we want to see our members come join us in person if they are comfortable in doing so. And then more importantly getting connected and reconnecting,” Brooks said.
Guests will be required to wear masks during their visit and signage throughout the Museum will highlight social distancing and other health and safety guidelines. After each timed visit, the museum will be cleaned and disinfected, with a focus on frequently touched surfaces.
Until capacity limits are lifted, the Museum will be open to the public Thursdays through Sundays, 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., with three allotted time frames for touring. The museum will accommodate 80 people at a time, including 20 staff members and approximately 60 guests. All guests are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance online, but self-service kiosks will be available for on-site ticketing.
Afea Tucker is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.