CHICAGO (CBS) — While Chicago’s larger museums have opened amid the coronavirus pandemic, many of the smaller independent museums remain closed because they can’t afford to do otherwise.
One of those museums that is still closed is the oldest independent African-American history museum in the country – the DuSable Museum of African American History, at 740 E. 56th Pl. in Washington Park.
Museum President Perri Irmer told CBS 2’s Marissa Parra it was a combination of safety and cost evaluations that led to the museum’s decision to stay closed until 2021. For DuSable and other small museums, the pandemic has been crippling – and now they are fighting for equal funding too.
Perri’s footsteps echoed in the empty Founders Hall at the museum.
“It’s pretty quiet,” she said.
Signs point to their newest exhibit – “The March,” in which visitors can virtually join the 1963 March on Washington. But nary a soul has seen that exhibit for months.
“Ironically, it opened up on February 26 and we had to shut down on March 14 – just weeks later,” Irmer said.
Irmer has been at the helm of the DuSable Museum for five years. She now faces the greatest challenge of her career – keeping the museum afloat while keeping people safe.
“Wow, what a year,” Irmer said. “What a year.”
Unlike the bigger museums such as the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute, and the Museum of Contemporary Art – all back open now with restrictions – the DuSable Museum has not reopened. They simply can’t afford it.
All of the sanitizing products and social distancing tools required for reopening add up. And the museum has already lost money that would require crowds to make up.
That simply is not an option – especially when the virus has already disproportionately ravaged Black and Brown communities.
“It’s no secret that what we do, including fighting racism and injustice, is more important now than ever before,” Irmer said.
But keeping the mission of Black History education alive, while more important than ever, is also harder than ever.
In a new letter, Perri wrote: “Looking forward to welcoming you and your family back to the DuSable Museum next January and inviting you to celebrate our 60th year in February of 2021.”
But the future of the country’s oldest independent African-American history museum hangs in the balance.
“It’s about funding and the equitable funding of publicly funded museums. We’re at the bottom of the heap, along with several other small museums,” Irmer said. “We are fighting for an equal share.”
DuSable has been holding virtual and outdoor events, including their “Cabin Fever” jazz series, which is being held Wednesday night.
The museum is also working to keep audiences engaged through virtual tours and exhibits, web-based offerings such as the “Code Black” webcast series, and remote learning experiences.
DuSable also said they are working with public art organizations to create a temporary exhibit of protest art, featuring the movement we are seeing today in 2020.
The DuSable Museum was founded in 1961 by Dr. Margaret Burroughs and her husband, Charles. As CBS 2’s Harry Porterfield noted in a 2014 report, the museum went on to set the pace for more than 200 others like it.
The museum is named for Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Haitian of African and French descent who established a trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1779. He is considered the city’s first resident.
To support or donate to the DuSable museum, go to the museum’s membership page.