Curating Culture: The Charles H. Wright Museum

During this celebration of the African diaspora, what better way to honor what Black history means to the city of Detroit than to check in with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History?

Charles H. Wright Museum
Photos by Lauren Jeziorski

Last year will be remembered more than anything for the COVID pandemic and the summer’s protests for racial justice. While the virus is new, the protests and the issues surrounding them are old as America itself. The demonstrations across the country brought many questions to light.

Can the system be changed? Does my vote even matter? In the wake of calls for confederate statues to be labeled “historic monuments,” who gets to decide what history is? How does that shape our modern day – and future?

The Charles H. Wright Museum is dealing with these issues and many more. One of the shining gems of Detroit’s Cultural Center Historic District, the museum’s exhibitions are centered around telling the story of the African American experience in culture, politics and art. Dr. Charles Wright, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Detroit, founded the museum with these issues already in mind. 

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“The significance of a museum is to document our history for our children, over time. That was one of his main goals,” says Patrina Chatman, the Wright Museum’s director of collections and exhibitions. Chatman – who’s been with the institution for 31 years – says she first became involved with the museum when Wright invited her to help out with a project, “and I never left.”

Chatman describes Wright as a worldly man who often traveled abroad. She says the idea for the museum came to him as he began to take note of African countries taking independence from European colonizers during the mid-20th century. He recognized the struggle to retain their culture and archive their history.

After seeing a memorial to WWII soldiers in Denmark, Wright decided the idea could wait no longer. If Black history was to be remembered, it would need a steward to record it. When he returned to Detroit, he set after his goal to preserve African American history for future generations. 

Erecting a Monument

Today, the Wright is home to the world’s largest collection of African American art, but it began much more humbly. The original site, founded in 1965, was started in Wright’s own office on West Grand Boulevard. Known then as the International Afro-American Museum, it was already a testament to Black legacy.

The small museum’s collections held artifacts like African masks and inventions by Elijah McCoy. “It wasn’t as big. You’d look up and there would be someone right there beside you looking over your shoulder,” Chatman says, jokingly. “But we felt like it was OK.”

It wasn’t long before the museum’s collection outgrew the space, and Wright began looking for a larger space with the help of volunteers. “He pulled together the community, all walks of life, all ethnicities,” Chatman says.

Getting money for the new location required a number of fundraising efforts, including allowing sponsors to buy bricks. Students from surrounding schools raised almost $20,000 with a penny drive. The city of Detroit granted land for the new museum that was several times larger than the previous location.

The new space was completed in 1987 and renamed the Museum of African American History. They soon outgrew that space, as well, and moved on to the current location in 1997, where the name of the founder was added. The modern Wright Museum has come a long way from its modest but aspirational start in Wright’s office.

The current building is a sight to behold, with its sleek concrete pillars and bright, welcoming rotunda. Its glass dome ceiling is adorned with flags of African nations, a complement to the colorful tile mosaic installation Ring of Genealogy, by Hubert Massey, laid into the floor.

The museum’s permanent collection of artwork also includes Stories in Stained Glass by Samuel A. Hodge. Hodge’s colorful, illuminated stained glass depictions of musicians, dancers and activists have to be seen in person. Also worth mentioning is United We Stand, the monumental 25-foot-tall black and white Charles McGee sculpture outside.

The building also holds the Louise Lovett Wright Library and Robert L. Hurst Research Center, the General Motors Theater and a shop. Its collections house over 35,000 artifacts and documents pertaining to the Black experience – from the underground railroad to Detroit’s labor movement.

The centerpiece of the museum, And Still We Rise: Our Journey through African American History and Culture, is a 22,000-square-foot, interactive exhibit that tells the experiences of African Americans through seven different exhibition spaces. The immersive display chronicles the emergence and cultural beginnings in Africa, the anguish of the transatlantic slave trade and the fight for freedom in America. 

Guests are taken on a journey through time and space to experience the open plains of sub-Saharan Africa, the cramped lower decks of slave ships and a walk through the once-vibrant Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s an unforgettable testament to the African American experience.

Through a Pandemic

The rotunda – normally bustling with movement – is quieter due to the reduced building capacity, one of the measures the museum is taking as a precaution to protect against COVID. Last year’s pandemic and the resulting global economic downturn took museums everywhere for a loop.

As cultural institutions around the world tried to figure out how to operate in the midst of lockdowns, the Wright partnered with a handful of other museums for a series of online presentations and performances centered around Juneteenth.

The experience revealed another avenue by which the museum could continue its mission. The Wright was soon flooded with an outpouring from classrooms asking for more digital lessons on topics ranging from why voting matters to the history of jazz. The institution plans to take this a step further this year by forging ongoing partnerships with schools and educators.

The museum will be working with Muskegon Heights Public Schools, providing materials and training for teachers leading African American history and social studies classes. They are also working with Wayne Regional Educational Services Agency (RESA) to create an instructional series for them.

“We’re excited to be partnering with people who see the museum as an alternative learning site,” says Reggie Woolery, director of education and public programs at the Wright. “We’re not a school, but we can do cool, incredible things that open teachers up.” Working digitally has also helped the Wright reach new potential visitors by putting events and performances online. One event is the Martin Luther King Day breakfast, normally an action-packed social event.

Woolery says, “Last year, we had between 3,500 and 5,000 people here.” It was one of the last major in-person events before the COVID virus emerged in Michigan and lockdowns and social distancing became the norm. Last month, the breakfast was held mostly online. “To make it a virtual event has obvious downsides, but we want to be safe and, at the same time, we have people who will be logging on nationally – and that’s really amazing,” he says.

Woolery has a background in digital media and says that, before the pandemic, the museum had been looking to improve its virtual profile. “We have incredible architecture and also a national stature, and we’re really only accessible to Detroiters.

That’s good because Detroiters feel ownership over the space, but things like the health disparities that came out of COVID, the protests in the streets, these are all national conversations. We’re not able to have those national conversations if we’re not in a virtual space.”

The museum successfully tapped into the national conversation with its current exhibition, Voting Matters, which illustrates the role of Black Americans in securing the right to vote, from Reconstruction through present day. The exhibition shows the role African Americans played in paving the road for all demographics, more than only white, land-owning men.

“We hit it on the nose that this would be an important election,” Woolery says. “Even though we may vote, most people don’t know about the history of those things and how voter suppression in the past has been reflected in voter suppression in the present.”

They intend for the exhibition to be a starting point for an ongoing conversation about the importance of voting that lasts beyond Inauguration Day. There are plans for part of the exhibition to travel to other museums after it ends in Detroit in May.

“Two years from now, if we don’t go out and vote, we’ll be right back in the same place.” Woolery says. “Even though it can be a ‘geeky’ subject, getting people to think about participation and how that shapes economics is something that we as an education department want to take on more.” 

Planning for the Future 

The Wright Museum has plans for several exciting new exhibitions and collaborations with other institutions this year. In February, the museum will release a book in collaboration with the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills analyzing and comparing white supremacy and the creation of monuments in post-Civil War America and post-WWII Germany.

Continuing their progress with virtual materials, the Wright is planning a special six-week series focused on reparations, covering local and national attempts to address the age-old question of disparity. The series will also look at contemporary examples of where reparations are being put into practice.

Also on its way to the Wright is Men of Change, a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian that documents exceptional African American men from history and contemporary culture in relation to themes like community, fathering, myth-breaking and storytelling. The exhibit combines narrative and art, featuring eye-catching portraits of the men by contemporary artists.

In a tribute to her grandmother, the curator Dell Pryor, Malika Pryor is organizing To Whom Much is Given. Dell established several art galleries in Detroit and has been involved in the city’s art scene for over 50 years. This show is a testament to her outstanding career and the long-standing history of Black arts in Detroit.

“It’s incredible, the things that she’s done, introducing African American artists to the city and to the world by providing a gallery space for them to exhibit, and that’s sometimes really difficult, even today,” director Chatman says of Dell.  

The museum is also planning an exhibition with Detroit-based painter and sculptor Mario Moore, a survey show looking back at his work from 2009 to present day. Moore, who curated his first show with the Wright, is now looking forward to his first retrospective show here.

“It’s amazing. I was born and raised in Detroit,” says Moore, who grew up not far from the museum’s second location. “I remember going there when I was younger. My mom would take me before the building that’s there now had been built.”

The staff at the Wright Museum are keeping Charles Wright’s vision alive and finding new ways to preserve and present African American history. Detroit is lucky to have this ever-growing, one-of-a-kind place for Black culture.

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