DuSable strives for “somewhere better and different” – Chicago Sun-Times | Candle Made Easy

On a recent Saturday morning, I stood outside the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Washington Park waiting for a man who was waiting in North Lawndale at the moment due to a communications error.

A quick phone call cleared up the confusion, and instead of speeding around town, we postponed. The rest of my morning was suddenly free just as the museum’s revolving door was unlocked. I felt an opportunity.

I’d be more reluctant to admit that I’d never visited the DuSable museum up to this point if I thought it would make me some kind of insane anomaly. To be honest I consider myself exceptional in that I sincerely wanted to see the place but have never had the opportunity to go there, never heard of an exhibition that would have piqued my interest and seemed worth the trip.

I imagine some Chicagoans must succumb to the racism of low expectations when it comes to the DuSable, imagining something akin to Wisconsin’s House on the Rock, a collection of random artifacts, perhaps with slightly distorted typewritten maps that You explain.

Honestly, I was content to stay away. What if I go to the museum and I don’t like it? So what? Volunteer as the white man who didn’t like the DuSable Museum? No benefit there. Or even worse, cough softly into my fist and say nothing, even some kind of racism?

My fears turned out to outweigh reality, as fears often do. The museum has an extensive exhibition on black soldiers in World War I, with original letters and a real gun. An interesting exhibition about civil rights and redlining. A film that takes you back to March 1963 in Washington. Professionally done. A new interactive exhibition about life in an African village – albeit an idealized Black Panther-like village – caught my attention.

And yet… 38 minutes later I did the obligatory tour of the gift shop and stood outside sucking my front teeth and forming my thoughts which can be summarized as follows:

It could be better. It should be better

“The building should be better,” agreed Perri Irmer, President and CEO of DuSable. “You’re not wrong at all.” She said the museum has improved. “It’s like night and day, exponentially better than what it was. The way this place used to be, we had an African exhibition that stayed there unchanged for 35 years.”

Irmer has headed the museum for seven years since September. “We opened 30 new exhibits, literally unheard of for the DuSable.”

An animatronic of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington speaks in a replica of his City Hall office at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. | Pat Nabong/Sun Times

Pat Nabong/Solar Times, Pat Nabong/Solar Times

There are three classes of museums in Chicago.

There are the Big Three: The Art Institute, the Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry, obligatory cultural monuments that residents and visitors alike return and should return to again and again.

There are beautiful secondary museums – the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago History Museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, hidden gems that reward anyone who finds their way to them.

Then there’s the third tier, strange outposts that most Chicagoans would never visit. Some are aimed at a narrow audience: The Holocaust Museum, designed to give busloads of fidgety fifth-graders a few watered-down spoonfuls of 20th-century crime and teach them about bullying.

Some are commercial ventures or otherworldly personal endeavors – the Writer’s Museum, the Pritzker Military Museum are examples of both. Some are just plain weird: the International Museum of Surgical Science comes to mind, a creepy time warp, Marcus Welby, MD’s gallbladder preserved in a formaldehyde bottle.

The DuSable ranks at the bottom of this third group when it should be front and center in the second given its vital and compelling theme.

blame lack of money.


Perri Irmer, President and CEO of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.

“We’ve been practicing alchemy for a long time,” Irmer said. “Do as much as possible with what little we have. I have half the staff I really need. We’ve never been funded enough, but we’re doing really great work, beautiful exhibits.”

I suggested that there’s nothing wrong with the DuSable that $50 million can’t fix.

“Exactly,” she said. “That’s it. To give us a chance to breathe out.”

As an architect and lawyer, Irmer clearly sees what is at stake: “The importance of our mission to the black community and to all of Chicago at this time in history when so many on the far right are trying to deny history To prevent this from deterring people from exercising the right to be taught history, it is even more important that institutions like ours have the support we need to enable us to function at the highest level.”

They are busy building collaborations with the MCA and international companies. She pointed to the new Equiano exhibition, a celebration of life in an Igbo village funded by an Israeli film company.

“We were contacted by them a little over two years ago to see if we would be willing to work with them on this film,” she said. “What you usually find in an American version of our history always begins with the slave trade. This means that black people’s sense of themselves is rooted in slavery, as opposed to their rootedness in freedom. It makes all the difference in the world when you acknowledge that you were a free people, with culture, with beauty, with art, with joy, before the crimes of slavery were committed.”


The Roundhouse, originally a stable designed by Daniel Burnham – like the building that housed the DuSable – is opposite the museum. Transforming the raw space into a facility that could host exhibits and welcome visitors was a long-standing dream that would cost about $30 million.

The opportunity is here. The 1880 Daniel Burnham Roundhouse is across the street, a raw space that would quintuple the museum’s 10,000 square foot exhibition space. If only they could come up with the $20-30 million needed for a full renovation.

“That’s not a lot of money for the state of Illinois,” Irmer said. “Not a ton of money for a billionaire.”

We talked for almost an hour and I can only scratch the surface of the conversation. Irmer definitely has visions. A much needed South Side music venue. Plans to expand campus to Midway. To create a community of artists and craftsmen. A museum in Chicago that complements the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.

It all comes down to the money needed to fill the gaping hole that the DuSable could fill. must fill.

“To be relevant to the 90 percent of black and brown students in Chicago public schools,” Irmer said of her goal. “That’s the biggest message I want to spread there: how important these stories are to contribute to healing and progression and a positive perspective on cities, black cities and black children’s self-image.

“It can’t just be what they see on the evening news. Otherwise we’re not going anywhere, and nothing will change. I see us as members of the resistance. Every child, no matter the color of their skin, has a right to learn history, has a right to know what happened, why we are, where we are and how we can achieve something better and different.”

Right now, I can’t in good conscience urge Chicagoans to check out the DuSable. He is not here yet. But it has to be. It could be. The story is there, gleaming from the page, waiting to be transformed into museum magic.

Now all they need is money.

Leave a Comment