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Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum is set to feature a new exhibit, “20 Dioramas: Brightly-Lit Windows, Magically Different,” that specifically focuses on the display of cultural dioramas that were created in the 1940s by African-American artists. The dioramas demonstrate the rich past of African-Americans, each depicting a scene of historical significance spanning from ancient Egypt through World War I.
Tuskegee acquired the dioramas from the State of Illinois and the federal government to use as a vehicle to educate the public. Originally, 33 dioramas were created for the 1940 Negro Exposition in Chicago; however, 13 were lost and Tuskegee was given the remaining 20. For many years the dioramas were housed in the old George Washington Carver Museum as a permanent exhibit of the Museum of Negro Art and Culture. For a while they were, also, displayed in the main library. Because they needed serious restoration, the five-foot dioramas have been stored away from public view for decades.
Museum curator, Dr. Jontyle Robinson, said the dioramas provide a magnificent testimony to American history, Tuskegee’s role throughout the nation’s history, and the cultural significance of Africans in the migration of peoples around the globe.
“The dioramas reveal America's striving to acknowledge the importance of the contributions of African-American people to the development of this county,” Robinson said. “They are unique for their time since they date back to the 1940 Negro Exposition in Chicago, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of slavery in the U.S.”
By witnessing conservation work up close and in person, students can better understand the myriad aspects of restoration work. Studying the dioramas also introduces students to the practical aspects of art conservation, where they learn how to remove decades of grime and dirt, and repair cracks in each diorama’s surface.
Robinson said she wants to improve diversity in the field of conservation because it is important for African-American students to learn the importance of conservation work and cultural heritage preservation, in hopes that efforts like this will pique their interest as a possible career opportunity in a relatable field.
“Careers in museum administration and art conservation are very important and need diversification. In this country, most museums are not administered by African-Americans, except those at historical black colleges, universities and similar organizations like Tuskegee,” she noted.
video courtesy of Theo M. Moore
Recently, Texas Southern University graduate LaStarsha McGarity, now a third-year graduate fellow at the State University of New York Buffalo State, conserved “Benjamin Banneker and the Surveying of Washington, D.C.” It and “The Arrival of the Slaves at Jamestown, Virginia,” which was also recently preserved, are currently on display in the Legacy Museum.
“The amount of money it takes for these works of art to be conserved is astronomical,” Robinson noted, stating that the restoration of just one diorama can cost between $25,000 and $30,000.
Because of limited funding, the museum has loaned out two other dioramas to Fisk University and the Smithsonian Institution. Among three other dioramas restored by the University of Delaware/Winterthur Museum was “Crispus Attucks, The First American Martyr, 1770," which will be on exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center this fall. All of these will eventually return to the Legacy Museum’s current display.
Robinson noted that the Alliance of HBCU Museums and Galleries worked with the Smithsonian and Fisk to have conservation workshops at those two sites. Fisk is involved in a year-long program for students from HBCUs regarding training in museum education, curation, museum development and art conservation.
Established in 2009, Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum is located adjacent to the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care and is part of the consortium of university and National Park Service museums found on the campus’ grounds. In addition to temporary art and historical exhibits, its permanent exhibits include “The Patient, The Project, The Partnership: The Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa cells at Tuskegee University” and “The United States Public Health Service Untreated Syphilis Study in the Negro Male, 1932-1972.”
To learn more about the Legacy Museum, including operating hours and admission information, visit https://www.tuskegee.edu/legacymuseum.
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