116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In June, the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids announced it was closing its doors during installation of a portion of the city’s floodgates and street construction work outside the museum’s front door at 55 12th Ave. SE.
That pause gave the impetus for a $5 million renovation project at the museum building, which opened in 2003. The structure was expected to close Aug. 6 and reopen in September 2023, but would offer upgraded traveling exhibits to take Black history and issues farther afield in Iowa.
What’s happened since
The doors stayed open to the public until Sept. 23, and the staff will remain in place until renovations begin in the spring. LaNisha Cassell, the museum’s executive director, now expects the facility to reopen in December 2023.
In the meantime, taking a page from Hancher Auditorium’s playbook after the flood of 2008 devastated the University of Iowa venue, the museum is making good on its plans to expand its reach statewide now and in the future.
“I thought of (Hancher) immediately when I was wanting to do something. They had their performances all over the place. That was so smart,” Cassell said. "So that's exactly what I thought of when I thought, ‘Well, we're going to be closed, and public libraries are our friends.’“
Patrons at the Des Moines Public Library and the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library can see the current traveling exhibit, “Suspended: Systemic Oppression in Our Schools.” It consists of three 8-foot-by-8-foot double-sided panels, spaced far enough apart to allow viewers to walk around them and spend time absorbing the information. As noted on the museum’s website, the staff developed the exhibit to “examine the role public schools play in funneling students into the prison system,” and “to learn more and explore ways to dismantle systems that feed the school to prison pipeline.”
Six sets of panels are available to rent for three months to one year, and one set is on view through next summer in the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s third-floor gallery.
“Suspended” also is rotating through the Des Moines library’s various branches, and another set of panels is on view at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake. In 2023, the exhibit will be coming to Old Capitol at the University of Iowa, the Kirkwood Community College campus in Iowa City, St. Ambrose University in Davenport, the University of Dubuque and the Waterloo Public Library.
The panels are available to any space large enough to accommodate them. For cost and leasing terms, go to blackiowa.org/education-research/traveling-exhibits/
“Pop-up” exhibits with a smaller footprint also are available for display. A four-panel installation titled “Products of a Creative Mind” stood in the Madison Street lobby at the UI Main Library in Iowa City until Thursday.
“We were thrilled to have the opportunity to support the African American Museum of Iowa while also providing an additional educational opportunity for students, faculty and staff visiting the Main Library,” John Culshaw, the UI’s Jack B. King university librarian, said in an email.
Cassell is especially pleased with the supplemental programming the Des Moines and UI libraries have introduced while hosting the exhibits. The UI Libraries created a complementary online guide to further highlight the inventors. To access it, go to guides.lib.uiowa.edu/aamicreative and click on the highlighted boxes.
And Cassell said the Des Moines library has “been doing a yeoman's job” building programs around the “Suspended” exhibit, and assisting the museum by “finding other locations who may be interested in taking it,” like the nearby Johnston Public Library.
Other traveling exhibits are available, and more will be developed down the road.
“Creating exhibit content enables individuals, groups and communities access to our educational resources when they are not physically able to patronize the museum,” Cassell said, adding that the museum also offers off-site and virtual programs.
“All of these measures ensure Iowans have access to its full history, not always available through traditional systems. Also, new opportunities for collaboration come with introducing our resources to people and communities across the state.”
The museum strives to "reduce cost as a barrier so that anyone interested in our educational resources are not deterred,“ Cassell said. ”A traditional pop-up traveling exhibit currently has a $25 reservation fee, plus the cost of shipping. Our new and much larger expo exhibit has a base reservation cost of $250 plus the cost of shipping. We anticipate increased rates as our expenses increase and the requests grow in quantity and distance.”
Floodgate construction is in full swing, and the street in front of the museum is torn up, closing access to the 12th Avenue Bridge across the Cedar River. When the noise and vibrations are too much to handle, some staff members have opted to work remotely.
The traveling resources will remain inside the museum for now, but will be moved to a secure off-site location when the staff retreats to a temporary office, too.
Meanwhile, Cassell and volunteer campaign chair Zach Bohannon continue raising funds for the renovations, and Cassell said 60 percent of the $5 million goal has been reached. She expects to reach more than $4 million in the first quarter of 2023.
Renovation plans are in the “nitty-gritty” of the design phase right now, she said. Cassell expects that to wrap in “February-ish,” then go into the bidding phase.
“The most immediate and striking change will be the upgraded parking lot; new entrance facing Second Street; a building facade that will make the building look brand-new; and the open and welcoming glass features at the entrance,” she said.
“The proposed main level is designed with spaciousness in mind that has added capacity for larger groups, and provides additional opportunities for expanded programs and events. The education office will be relocated to the upper level, and the library will become a multipurpose space relocated to the existing store site. We will have custom-made reception area and merchandise kiosk for a more modern feel.”
HVAC and vapor barriers also will be upgraded.
“No area will be untouched by the project. From new ceilings, lighting, carpet and wall color, to upgrades in our Aldeen Davis Celebration Hall, restrooms, and kitchen, everything will look and feel refreshed,” Cassell said.
The new year marks the museum’s 30th anniversary, springing from 1993 when several members of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church founded the organization. The church provided space and funds to get it off the ground. It moved to other locations in Cedar Rapids, including Westdale Mall, until 2003, when the current museum was built. With that facility closed for most of 2023, anniversary celebrations will be held off-site.
“Our plan is to do two central celebrations,” Cassell said, adding that it’s all tentative. She’s thinking about a family-friendly birthday party, perhaps at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. For a more adult-focused event, she may turn to a Des Moines site.
“One of the things I'm really trying to do is strengthen our relationships and partnerships, and even build new ones in Des Moines,” Cassell said.
More events are in the works.
“We are also making plans for MLK Jr. Day, Black History Month, our annual Juneteenth commemoration, and our annual History Makers Gala,” Cassell said. “In the coming months, we'll be announcing our next exhibit installation and community partner.
“Our work hasn't stopped or slowed down.”
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