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Dr John Aden hopes to take Fort Wayne’s African/African-American Museum to the next level
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Dr John Aden knows museums.
A history professor who earned his Master’s and PhD from Indiana University, Dr Aden’s resume includes a stint in a summer research program at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, and several months at the Musee National in Mali as a Fulbright scholar.
“Museum studies is a part of my education,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of background access to museums and how they work, and I’ve known and worked with a lot of museum directors and staff. I kind of absorbed it.”
So when Dr. Aden first visited Fort Wayne’s African/African-American Historical Society Museum in, he thinks, 2006 or 2007, a little over half-a-decade after it opened, he had a different set of expectations. Aden grew up in the area, but after graduating from Paul Harding High School in 1992, his academic career kept him too busy to return to the city much, other than for quick holiday visits.
His initial impressions? Lots of great content, lots of reading, but not much context on what he was seeing or where it came from. “I’m more of a culture buff, so I wanted to know which culture used this piece of art, what was it used for, and that wasn’t accessible to me,” he says.
And when he returned a few years later, not a lot had changed. “If everything is on permanent display, then why do people come back?” he says. “They may come back out of loyalty to you, or loyalty to the institution, but not necessarily because they’re going to experience new content. Our model is the inverse of that. We believe that you want to enchant people’s intellectual curiosity, and if you do that, they’ll come back a lot.”
The African/African-American Historical Society moved into its current location at 436 East Douglas Street in 1999, and visitors during the museum’s early years could see a wide range of African art and culture on display. Particularly impressive are two large exhibition rooms dedicated to local history and sports, with newspaper clippings and photographs going back to the early 20th century and exhibitions on community leaders like William Warfield and others.
And if those visitors returned several years later, they would basically see the same things, presented the same way, maybe with a few additions here and there…
So, it might be safe to say that many visitors had a similar experience to Dr. Aden, whether or not they had his museum experience, and formed a similar impression. In fact, when I mentioned to someone that I was hoping on doing a story on the African/African-American Historical Society and Museum and its newly appointed Executive Director, their blunt verdict was that the museum was one of the most under-utilized resources in Fort Wayne.
As we said above, Aden is certainly well-qualified for the job of revitalizing the AAAHSM. He possesses a very clear understanding of what he expects from a museum, the challenges that museums face, and what today’s patrons expect from these institutions. “Part of what I inherited is an institution with really good bones and a lot of content, a really strong collection, but not a lot of historical narrative involved,” he says. “Our challenge is adding that narrative and doing it in a way that’s more accessible and immersive for our patrons so they’ll have an enriching experience.”
Most museums — even some of the smaller and mid-sized institutions — have embraced new technology by digitizing their content and supplementing their existing collection with online sources that offer more information. That’s something Aden feels is essential for the AAAHSM. “Museums have two dimensional bar codes attached to all their signage, and you scan it with your iPhone or your pad and it takes you to a site on YouTube or takes you somewhere where you can learn more,” Aden says. “In the case of African art, for example, I want people to be able to see how a piece is made. You can see that on YouTube. But without that technology, we can’t bridge that gap.”
He adds: “Nationally, museums have been shifting away from a solely docent-centric experience, where the tour guide drives the experience, to an exchange where the patron owns the experience by discovering things for themselves. If you can marry those two things, that’s important.”
Outreach is just as essential. The African/African-American Historical Society and Museum is planning several summer camps for next year, and is also moving forward with the “museum on wheels,” taking what the museum offers to schools. “A lot of times, museums don’t recognize that there lots of kids out there who will never enter this space, so how do we interface with those people? How do we try to enrich the quality of their education? Teachers have so many steps to go through in order to get a field trip approved, and even after that, you have to find budgetary support for it. So, we can go to them.”
Aden adds that he’s been heartened by the number of people in other area institutions who have approached him about collaborating, and hopes to be able to announce some projects soon.
Underlying all these plans is an initiative to simply make the African/African-American Historical Society and Museum more visible, more a part of the community in general, an institution (and redevelopment catalyst) thought of in the same sphere as the FWMoA, the Historical Society, and others.
Though he’s well-qualified, Aden has his work cut out for him. Many critics claim that for years, the AAAHSM seemed cut off from the rest of the community, and that its administration exercised what might be called a territorial style of management (Aden’s appointment came amidst a storm of controversy, all of which has been well-covered elsewhere).
That’s the perception, at least, and whatever the reality, the fact is that during a weak economy, when many non-profits are having difficulty, a small institution like the AAAHSM is especially vulnerable.
Aden seems well-versed in the language of fund-raising for non-profits, and can identify the foundations and grants interested in supporting the projects — such as digitization — that the AAAHSM is pursuing. But the funding that exists for arts and culture institutions is limited, and Aden points out that the museum needs strategic partners locally, and needs to figure out how to monetize the resources it all already has. “My observation since taking the job is that there are a lot of ways you could monetize this content and expand this content,” he says. “But how do we extend the value of this cultural knowledge into a lot of other spaces the museum wasn’t going into before? That’s our challenge.”
The time when a patron to the AAAHSM can wave his or her iPhone over bar code and learn more about the exhibit may not be that far away. But there are a lot of smaller things to put in motion before that, and so when I ask Aden the “magic wand” question — if he could wave a magic wand and see one specific thing happen for the museum, what would it be? — he hesitates a while before offering up his answer: he’d keep the current structure, but as a supplement to a 20,000 square foot two-story sprung structure facility. “Anyone who hears that is going to think I’m nuts,” he laughs. “But a facility like that… that’s part of the dream. I know we’re a long way from that.”
Still, while that type of facility may be little more than a dream right now, Aden seems to have the energy, vision, and know-how to help transform what many thought of as a moribund institution into a vital and dynamic part of the city’s cultural community. Aden himself, though, is quick to deflect any notion that that the museum in “his.” Part of the cultural side of institutions like the AAAHSM, he says, is that sometimes there’s a desire to own the history it tries to tell, and dictate how that history is interpreted by other people — in other words, I’ll tell you what you need.
But many contemporary museums and cultural institutions now look at that relationship with their patrons from a different perspective. That’s what Aden would like to see at the Africa/African-American Historical Society. “If you’re in a constant learning posture, your patrons are going to teach you more about what you can do to make this a better experience than what you can dream up on your own.”