CORONAVIRUS

African American Museum of Iowa developing new ways to connect in virtual world

LaNisha Cassell stands at the lunch counter exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, shortly befo
LaNisha Cassell stands at the lunch counter exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, shortly before becoming the museum’s executive director in 2017. The lunch counter is part of the museum’s “Endless Possibilities” permanent exhibit, and can be viewed in a new virtual tour. This piece pays tribute to Edna Griffen, who was denied service at Katz Drug Store in Des Moines in 1948, sparking a series of sit-ins by community members in support of Griffen. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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“Buxton was known as the ‘black utopia’ because African Americans were able to work in relative equity, because of the industry they were involved in the early part of the 20th century,” LaNisha Cassell noted in her latest black history trivia question. “Do you know what that industry was?”

Her kids call these new Facebook videos “cringey.”

But never mind the critics living under her roof. The executive director of the African American Museum of Iowa, located at 55 12th Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids, is pleased with the public’s response.

“It’s getting a lot of views and it’s a good way to engage with audiences,” Cassell, 46, of Cedar Rapids, told her kids, ages 10 and 15. “People are actually answering the trivia, so it’s been kind of fun. I don’t mind doing it.”

That’s just one of the ways the museum is mining connections to the virtual world while its physical doors are shut in response to the historic COVID-19 pandemic. The museum already had a website, Blackiowa.org, but no virtual tours and few online extras. (And the first sentence in this paragraph contains the answer to the trivia question.)

“We really didn’t have virtual components to our exhibits or programs beyond some things here and there,” Cassell said. “This has certainly been a different time. We’ve tried to become more proactive than reactionary. ...

“We struggled in the past, before this ever happened,” she added. “We had talked about virtual options, but we didn’t want to discourage people from coming to the museum, because if everything is available online, what reason do you have to come in? Also, it can detract from your revenue.”

But that changed when so many places closed in mid-March. Creating virtual programming became “a good way to offer opportunities for people to see what we have available,” she said.

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The everyday realm is different for the African American Museum of Iowa than for other area museums that have multiple galleries with ever-changing exhibits.

“Our temporary exhibit changes only once a year,” Cassell said, “so even though it’s ‘new,’ it’s not really new, because it’s been up since the middle of last year, and it goes until June.”

“Untangling the Roots: The Culture of Black Hair” had been “creating quite a buzz,” before the museum’s doors closed, she noted, but that exhibit isn’t being shown online, since it will be closing soon. Instead, efforts focused on the permanent exhibit, “Endless Possibilities,” which traces Iowa’s African American history from its origins in Western Africa to the present. Viewers can go to Blackiowa.org/endless-possibilities/ and click on the pulsating circular “hot spots” to explore the scenes and stories contained within the exhibit.

The new “Who Was” story time series in conjunction with the Cedar Rapids Public Library also has moved online, with links on the museum’s online kids’ activities link, Blackiowa.org/kids, and its Facebook page, Facebook.com/africanamericanmuseumofiowa/

Learners of all ages can hear the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou.

Also on the Facebook page are links to a fundraiser for the African American Heritage Foundation; a “Not Just February” video looking at the impact of black history locally, nationally and beyond; and a virtual discussion of the Netflix series “Self Made!” exploring the life of C.J. Walker. She was the country’s first African American self-made millionaire, who sold hair care products for African American women.

Oral histories and an online collections database also can be found at Blackiowa.org/digital-resources/

The biggest virtual change, however, is in the works to celebrate Juneteenth from June 15 to 20. Initially planned as a one-day event at NewBo City Market, it’s moving online in keeping with COVID-19 physical distancing protocols.

Cassell and her colleagues are looking farther ahead, to the time when it’s safe to reopen the museum. Right now, it’s losing about $5,000 a month by not being able to welcome school groups, walk-in visitors and people attending the museum’s various programs, she said.

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She’s excited for the day when she can welcome the public through the doors, pose for selfies and connect guests with overlooked chapters of the past that affect the present and future at home and abroad.

“In order for people to appreciate things that are happening now — whether or not that’s good or bad,” she said, “it is beneficial to have the context of history to be able to fully understand or grasp the current circumstances or society or situations.”

To Connect

• What: African American Museum of Iowa

• Website: Blackiowa.org

• Virtual exhibit tour: <URL destination="https://blackiowa.org/endless-possibilities/">Blackiowa.org/endless-possibilities/

</URL>• Children’s activities: <URL destination="https://blackiowa.org/kids/">Blackiowa.org/kids/

</URL>• Facebook: For more videos, trivia and activities, search Facebook under African American Museum of Iowa

• Juneteenth: Virtual celebration June 15 to 20; details to come at Blackiowa.org and Facebook

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