African American Museum reopens after year-long closure

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Ivan Henderson remembers the very day that the doors of The African American Museum in Philadelphia closed.

"We closed on March 13 (2020)," said Henderson, who is the vice president of programming for the museum.

Dejay B. Duckett remembers that day very well too. She was busy preparing a new exhibit.

"(We had) all these beautiful works that have been framed and ready to go, when everything shut down," said Duckett, the museum's director of curatorial services.

That very exhibit, "Anna Russell Jones: The Art of Design," is opening to the public 14 months later. It features the works of the first African American to graduate from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now Moore College of Art and Design.

The exhibit isn't the only thing new at the reopened museum.

In the era of COVID-19, there are also new policies and procedures in place to keep visitors safe.

"We strongly encourage advanced registration," said Henderson. "Everyone will fall into a timed ticket slot. We've also shortened our hours in a sense and put a 70 to 75-minute limit on visit time. This allows us to turn over the building and sanitize in between visitors."

The museum also now has a touch-free ticketing and check-in system.

Visitors scan the QR code with their phones to gain admission. Every visitor is also asked to fill out a health self-assessment form.

Masks are also required throughout the building.

The museum has taken away features that require visitors to push buttons with their fingers in order to hear programming.

On the first floor of the museum, that button-pressing system has been replaced with a looped recording that is timed for each ticketed set of visitors.

On the second floor, an exhibit featuring stories of historic African-American Philadelphians has also been modified.

Buttons have been replaced with foot pedals that allow visitors to hear the stories without using their fingers to press buttons.

For 12 of the 14 months that the museum was closed, they developed virtual programming that had both its challenges and benefits.

"That gave us a wider reach to audiences across the country and around the world," said Duckett.

But museum workers say there's nothing like having people back into the building, albeit in a limited capacity.

Where the building could previously hold up to 450 people, now only 60 guests are allowed in at a time paired with about 20 staff members.

Henderson says, even with the smaller numbers, he's hoping the museum's impact can still be big, especially as the nation continues to grapple with issues of social justice.

"The things that have occurred in the last 14 months have made our work more clear and have deepened our commitment to pursuing our mission," he said. "Part of reopening today is stepping back into a position of strength as a cultural institution."
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