By Sarah Binder
Thomas Moore never planned to open a museum.
“I was not a museum person,” he said. “My interest was in young people at our church knowing something about their history.”
But, bit by bit, that vision continued to grow.
This year, the African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, is celebrating its 20th anniversary, opening a brand new exhibit and continuing to bring educational programs to students all across the state.
In 1993, Mr. Moore started a community center in the building next to his church. Realizing the idea needed more organization, a nonprofit was formed in 1994. Eventually, it was followed by a full-time executive director, a temporary location at Westdale Mall and the construction of a new 17,000-square-foot museum.
Looking back, Mr. Moore sees not being a “museum person” as a positive.
“I’m really proud that we’re out-of-the-box thinkers,” he said.
For example, two-thirds of the museum’s participation takes place outside of its walls, in classrooms and libraries throughout the state. The museum has travelling exhibits, as well as in-person and virtual lessons, often in conjunction with local community organizations.
“Our intention is to enhance what they already have,” he said.
The museum’s focus, Iowa history with a school-aged demographic, evolved as it gained more partnerships and expanded into more communities.
“We’re still figuring out where all we fit in,” Mr. Moore said.
Because of its many partnerships and educational programs, the museum has earned a diverse audience.
“Lo and behold, today we work with more Caucasian children than African American children,” Mr. Moore said, remembering his original motivation to start the space.
“We really try to emphasize that African American history is American history,” said Grant Stevens, the museum’s development director.
Partnerships have also helped the museum grow its adult audience. For example, in the new exhibit,“Western Africa: Before the Boats,” the museum is working with Theatre Cedar Rapids to present traditional dances, the Ceramics Center for examples of pottery and West Music for African instruments.
The exhibit also has an advisory committee filled with researchers, artists and enthusiasts from prominent institutions, including the University of Iowa and UI Museum of Art.
“It’s been a gratifying experience for me to see the organization, given the amount of respect that we have,” Mr. Moore said. “It’s just been fantastic to be accepted in such a way.”
Mr. Moore planned to retire in 2003 but took on the museum’s top role when the previous executive director decided to step down, just as the museum was preparing to move into its permanent home. Now, as he reflects on 10 years in the building and 20 years of building his vision, he’s once again preparing to retire. The museum is conducting a search for a new executive director.
“There’s a time period for each of us to make our contribution,” he said. “You need new energies.”
He hopes people leaving the museum are inspired to carry a positive change forward in their lives.
“Ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds hatred,” he said. “Knowledge is just the opposite, it opens people’s eyes, it brings people together.”
Before the Boats
Lynn Koos, the museum’s curator, said often the first thing people think of when they imagine Africa is a “primitive hut.” However, she explained that traditional African architecture, such as that made from branches naturally woven together, was actually more advanced. Once Europeans brought metal building materials, nails began to rust and tin roofs baked in the sun.
The exhibit contains a mix of these everyday artifacts, including textiles, pottery and instruments, and fine art pieces, like a mask intricately carved from a single piece of wood. The common theme is to show what the culture would have been like before European influence, before the slave trade.
It offers a contrast to the museum’s permanent exhibit, which doesn’t shy away from the themes of slavery and segregation in Iowa’s history.
With “please touch” stations scattered throughout, “Before the Boats” is designed to work in conjunction with the museum’s educational programs. When children can interact with the ideas, it helps to stimulate critical thinking, Ms. Koos said.
“When they put it all together, they show more appreciation for the culture,” she said.
Between the private and public openings, the exhibit saw 530 guests its first weekend earlier this month.
It is the first exhibit Ms. Koos was able to direct from beginning to end, after becoming curator in 2010. She’s not the only young staffer at the museum; Michelle Poe, director of education, and Mr. Stevens are also both young professionals.
“[Mr. Moore] deliberately hires young people,” Mr. Stevens said. “He knows that we’re excited and passionate about things, and we’re eager to prove ourselves.”
Upcoming events at The African American Museum of Iowa
- Feb. 9: African Safari and Carnival of Greats! The museum’s primary Black History Month celebration, with family-centered games and activities. At 10:30 a.m., a storyteller will present the stories, songs, and dances of Africa. At 11 a.m., kids can play the piano like Ray Charles or run like Wilma Rudolph in the Carnival of Greats. Suggested donation $3.
- May 2: 20th Anniversary Celebration: Taking the place of the traditional annual banquet, this event will celebrate the museum’s past, present and future.
- May 4: 20th Birthday Party: A family-focused event, the 20th Birthday Party will be a large celebration with multiple performances throughout the day, birthday cake and ice cream and 20 different activities for children.