Apex and Oakland: Partnership for Black History education, part 2

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People walking through the cemetery during the "Sunday in the Park" event. Photo Credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

Sunday in the Park crowd at Oakland Cemetery. Photo credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

Editors’ Note: This post is part of a History@Work series that complements The Public Historian, volume 40, number 3, which is about the history of the field of Black Museums. This is part 2 of a two-part post written by educators at Atlanta’s APEX Museum: African American Panoramic Experience and Historic Oakland Cemetery, with questions posed by History@Work editor Adina Langer (AL) and answers given by Deborah Strahorn (DS) of APEX Museum and Marcy Breffle (MB) of Historic Oakland Cemetery. Explore Part 1 of this discussion

AL: How has the collaboration between APEX Museum: African American Panoramic Experience and Historic Oakland Cemetery helped you to support the mission of your institutions? What new connections have you made?

DS: The collaboration has been tremendous. At APEX, we have been able to learn from Oakland’s Home School program and presented two Museum Monday events at the APEX last year, which two of Oakland’s home school families attended. We have gained visibility by participating in the “Sunday in the Park,” where we had a table display and reached more than 350 people by distributing our 40th Anniversary bookmarks. I’m looking forward to more ways that we can partner.

MB: This ongoing collaboration has helped our institutions to reach new audiences and raise funds—through individual and foundation giving—to support our missions. We both cite our partnership in grant applications to demonstrate outreach efforts.

On a personal level, Deb and I have challenged and encouraged one another to grow in our careers. We serve as sounding boards for each other, constantly sharing advice or providing inspiration. Deb is doing amazing things at APEX, and I am happy to support her in any way I can.

AL: In what ways do you hope to see the work of APEX and Oakland overlapping in the future? In what ways do you foresee this connection impacting the unique missions of your respective organizations?

Young people listening to a guide during Oakland Cemetery's Juneteenth Children's Tour. Photo Credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

Juneteenth Children’s Tour at Oakland Cemetery, 2018. Photo credit: Historic Oakland Foundation

DS: There is a connection with Stories and the Cemetery. As Storyteller-In Residence I want to be able to highlight some of the storytelling events and tours presented at Oakland on our website, specifically those related to the African Americans buried there. The impact upon our organizations is that we are both presenting and preserving history through storytelling, so it’s a win-win partnership.

MB: I would like to see HOF (Historic Oakland Foundation, the non-profit organization that manages Oakland Cemetery) and APEX continue to collaborate on more educational programs. HOF hosts an annual Juneteenth celebration at the cemetery, offering free tours and storytelling to visitors of all ages. Deb and I have discussed APEX serving as a co-sponsor for our 2019 Juneteenth program. Stay tuned!    

AL: What is your vision for the future of your institution? How do you hope to achieve this vision?

MB: HOF’s goal is the complete restoration of all 48 acres of Oakland Cemetery. From an education perspective, I would like to see HOF become a community leader in educational programming for visitors of all ages and backgrounds and a national model for cemetery education.

To do this, we need to strengthen and deepen our engagement with the Atlanta community, uphold our commitment to program excellence, strengthen relationships with K-12 partners, and become a civically engaged institution that plays an active and relevant role in Atlanta. Our ongoing collaboration with Deb Strahorn and the APEX Museum will help us achieve this vision.

A screenshot from Apex Museum's website showing its vision statement. Screenshot by Adina Langer

Apex Museum vision statement Screenshot: Adina Langer

DS: The vision is to expand the museum. Our current facility is Phase I of our vision. Our goal is to build the APEX Phase II, which will be a 40,000-square-foot museum to chronicle African and African American history from ancient Africa to the present-day United States using technology and animation as well as exhibitions. The new facility will be built adjacent to Phase I on the parking lot, which the APEX owns. To achieve this, we are concentrating on building new audiences by growing our partnerships and providing more programming to sustain our current membership base; transforming them from visitors to members to patrons and then to donors. Something that Historic Oakland Foundation does quite well.

AL: On page 164 of “The Public Historian,” volume 40, number 3, Larouche and Hayward wrote: “The unprecedented surge of African American museums in the 1970s can be attributed to the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements—all of which gained momentum in the 1960s. The influence of the Civil Rights Movement, especially, prompted the founding of new museums in the South, where many of the intense events of the period occurred.”

What do you think is the most important role of Black History interpretation today, both at museums dedicated to African American themes (like APEX) and at historic sites where African American themes are included among a variety of interpretive elements (like Oakland)?

MB: Too often, the voices of marginalized individuals—people of color, women, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and other socially-excluded minorities—have been silenced or misrepresented by the mainstream historical narrative. As museum professionals, we should all strive to recover these personal stories, provide context around their experiences, and share them with the public in a meaningful, engaging, and truthful way.

For historic sites that address African American themes, it is incredibly important to not shy away from difficult topics, such as slavery and racial violence. Interpretation should be comprehensive and inclusive. It is equally critical to reevaluate existing interpretation and look for bias. Visitors trust museums to provide accurate information, not a skewed version of history. Community involvement, staff and volunteer training, commitment to empathy, and open dialogue are all key.  

DS: Many visitors come to the museum knowing that the true stories and history about African Americans are not being taught in school. People of many races and ages come here because they are seeking out history, and they want to learn and to know. I think it’s important to share the multi-faceted story of African Americans. We are not simply entertainers and basketball players. It is equally important to let people know about the many contributions of Africans and African Americans to the world; to help them understand that there is more to our culture than slavery and Civil Rights; and especially to know that African American history did not start with slavery.

~Deborah Strahorn is Storyteller-in-Residence at the APEX Museum in Atlanta, Georgia

~Marcy Breffle is education manager at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia

~Adina Langer is curator at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia



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