Museums in the United States have a long history of being close, elitist institutions that cater primarily to the wealthy, the well informed and the well connected. In recent years, after low attendance and minimal financial support raised widespread discussion about museum reform, many institutions have made concerted efforts to change both their images and their functions within the community. The Idaho Black History Museum (IBHM), which has operated in its current location only since 1999, has already succeeded in creating a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere both in its physical edifice and through its most recent exhibition. This is an impressive feat for any museum, but especially for one whose focus is a minority population in Idaho.
The museum's front door stands wide open, with a red carpet rolling down the steps and onto the sidewalk. The welcome continues at the front desk, as the IBHM is the only institution left in the Julia Davis Park cultural cluster that does not charge an admission fee, though they gratefully accept donations. On the Saturday morning that I visited, this small-museum warmth and personal touch was punctuated by the fact that the museum's new executive director, Pauline Skeggs, rose from her desk at the rear of the building to personally welcome, greet and orient visitors.
Skeggs provided each visitor information about the building, originally the St. Paul Baptist Church, constructed in 1921 and one of the oldest structures built by blacks in the State of Idaho. She also explained different aspects of the exhibition, including the video, interactive components and the "Kiddy Korner." The most impressive element of her introduction was her declaration that the exhibition had been most valuable so far in sparking a community dialogue. Visitors from around the state have been pleased to find that they are not only expected to passively learn from the exhibition but are encouraged to contribute to the knowledge base that created it. Skeggs described how visitors have identified people in the photos and shared stories, histories and family lore. Rarely are museum-goers made to feel like an exhibition has been created for their benefit, or that their presence benefits the exhibition.
Even though it is a small museum, the IBHM is making strides to stay viable and progressive in its exhibition design. While many parts of the exhibition include static, text-heavy panels, there are also interactive question-and-answer elements and artifact drawers that welcome children of all ages to explore artifacts. The exhibition also includes a 55-minute video produced by the NAACP detailing the history of blacks in Pocatello, Idaho. These elements, combined with the invitational attitude of the director, all contribute to the dynamic nature of the new permanent collection exhibition, The Invisible Idahoan: 200 Years of Blacks in Idaho.
The current installation, "Black Pioneers: Few and Far Between," the first of a three-part series, opened in January this year and covers the years from 1805 through 1919. The second installation, slated to open July 2005, will tell of the civil rights movement during the years from 1920 through 1968. The third, which opens January 2006, will describe the years from 1969 to 2006, highlighting current, prominent black Idahoans.
The bulk of the information may be presented on reader-dependent panels, but the information is interesting and not at all what I remember learning in my standard issue, fourth grade Idaho History curriculum. The panels present a mixture of bullet-point facts such as "In the 1860s and 70s mining was the main lure to Idaho for blacks and whites alike. Discouraged by discrimination, in 1900, there were fewer than 300 blacks in the state." They also offer individual stories, such as those of the first black in Idaho, York, who traveled with the Lewis and Clark expedition and later immigrants such as Gobo Fango.
It was the story of Fango that made the personal connection for me. Fango was born in West Africa and adopted by a white family that later converted to Mormonism and immigrated to the United States in 1861. Fango's life in Utah was not always a pleasant one, but after slavery was abolished, Fango was able to start his free life as a sheepherder near Oakley, Idaho. Relations between sheepherders and cattlemen were strained at the time, and when Fango's sheep wandered too close to rancher Frank Carl Bedke's cattle, a dispute erupted that was common at the time. Not so common was the dispute's climax when Bedke shot Fango three times, took his gun and left him for dead. Fango crawled four and a half miles to a nearby home, where he later died. While Bedke was tried for the murder twice, he was not convicted.
Growing up in Rupert, Idaho, a few miles from Oakley, I did not know anyone who was black until ninth grade when one brave family moved to town. I did, however, know the Bedke family--a powerful, influential family in Oakley and nearby Burley. It was, needless to say, an incredibly uncomfortable moment when I realized that I had grown up without black neighbors not because they did not exist in my part of the state, but because they had not been welcome.
The power and importance of the Idaho Black History Museum as an institution cannot be understated, because despite all the strides that have been made since Gobo Fango was murdered, this is still Idaho. As I sat reading, a blond woman walked through the doors with a dog. Idaho or no, bringing a dog into a museum is at least frowned upon, if not laughed at or immediately barred. When the museum director came forward to greet this new guest, she hesitated--probably in a mild state of shock at the woman's lack of good sense and respect. The woman, beaming with pride over her snuffley little pug, said, "I hope it's okay to bring her in here ... but she is black, you know!" and laughed uproariously. The director made an accommodating sound and nonetheless welcomed the woman into the exhibition.