I stayed on the Cottage Grove bus an extra stop and got off at 57th Street. Steering clear of chunks of ice on the sidewalk, I tried all the doors nearest the street and found them all locked. I went all the way around to the side facing Washington Park and found a door open. Inside the lobby the ticket guy couldn’t break a $20, so he charged me the $5 student rate rather than the $8 Chicago resident one. Aside from him and a security guard, sitting to the other side of the door I entered, the only other employee I encountered during my half hour at the DuSable Museum of African-American History was a clerk in the gift shop who never even looked up from her phone to acknowledge my presence. My original plan had been to go to the Smart Museum and catch the Expressionism show before it closed, but then I remembered the DuSable. I’ve lived in Chicago about 25 years and had only been inside once, and that was just to see a movie.
I linger in the lobby to admire Thomas Miller’s mosaics of the ten founders of the museum. Mosaic is such an archaic art form, but Miller has used it to make snapshot-like portraits. They will be the only things from my visit which I remember fondly. Past the lobby is a room of African artifacts, followed by one half-filled with photos and relics from various wars. The other part of this gallery is closed while, what’s promised to be an exciting new exhibit, is being installed; there’s no evidence of any activity behind that sign, exciting or otherwise. In the last room there is a timeline of Harold Washington’s political career, the centerpiece of which is a slipshod diorama of the man’s office with a creepy mannequin Harold behind a desk. There’s a flat-screen TV to his left which will broadcast highlights from his ascent to power but I don’t press the button to start the video. Down a flight of stairs I enter the new wing of the museum—the part with the auditorium and the locked doors—and take in an exhibit charting the progress of African-Americans from slavery to the election of Barack Obama. This is where I encounter two of the six other museum-goers I see during my entire time here. There are no guards or employees of any other kind to be seen in this part of the museum at all.
The Smart Museum a few blocks away isn’t much better attended this day, but unlike the DuSable it doesn’t feel like being inside a neglected tomb; this place is obviously well-funded and in no danger of shuttering. The missions of these two museums are different, to be sure; the former houses part of a private university’s art collection, while the latter is a grass-roots repository of artifacts meant to celebrate an entire race. Taking in the beautiful Expressionism show at the Smart, the empty rooms of the DuSable lingered on in my mind. Back when I was in art school at SAIC, I visited the Art Institute a few times a week. The fact that it was free and nearby played no small part in my regular attendance. Back then admission for regular visitors was by suggested donation, but for the last decade or more the rates have become mandatory and have steadily risen. The museum is free from 5 to 8pm Thursday nights. That’s the only time it’s open after 5pm and costs less than $22 to enter for city residents. On a recent Thursday night young people wandered through the galleries chattering and recording what they were taking in on their phones. The feel was that of a singles mixer rather than a cultural or educational outing. The artwork served as posh window dressing for socializing. Perhaps that’s preferable to the exclusionary and rarified nature inherent in such an institution. Maybe on a break from flirting or updating Instagram a few of these young people will be stopped by something on one of the walls. A painting from 50 years ago or a statuette from a 1000 years ago will trip a trigger and they’ll see their world a little differently.
As a society our relationship with museums is contradictory and inconsistent. Public funding is harder and harder to come by, yet crowds flock to populist gimmick shows like the MCA’s attendance-record-shattering David Bowie exhibit last year. Appealing to the lowest common denominator can work, but how many Bowie fans will ever visit the MCA again unless there’s a similar pop culture hook? How can the DuSable attract more than the random visitor who decides to stop in on the spur of the moment, while passing by? We get the lion’s share of our information from screens these days so how can we compel people to shut off the blinking lights and experience the fruit of human endeavor first-person? Whether woebegone like that sad Harold Washington diorama or tasteful like the Smart, museums take us out of our everyday routine and attempt to widen our worldview. As depressing as my visit to the DuSable was, my life would be poorer if I hadn’t gone. For all of our sakes I hope we can find a way to keep places like it open and perhaps even find a few bucks to keep the sidewalks shoveled and the lightbulbs burning.