What do you think museums are? For me museums are exciting, enlightening, and important caretakers of history, but it’s safe to say that many people, particularly young people, think museums are remote, expensive and unappealing. Maybe this is because they don’t see themselves in the objects on display, maybe the admission fees are too much for an experience without a strictly tangible reward, or maybe visiting is just too inconvenient. But how might these views change if people saw their history in what’s on display, or if museums came directly to them?
It’s these two facets – mobility and relevance – that I wanted to talk about when I had the pleasure of interviewing Khalid el-Hakim, the founder of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum. Since 1991 he has been working to bring African American and Black history to people who might not have thought museums were worth visiting. It’s clear that he is doing groundbreaking work – BH101MM explores topics ranging from slavery to hip hop, both of which are underrepresented in museums. But it’s not just the topics that drive the museum, it’s el-Hakim’s passion – he asserts, “I want people to walk away as inspired as I’ve been as a collector and student of this history”
Christian: What brought you to start the Black History 101 Mobile Museum? How has it evolved? Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the name?
Khalid: The Black History 101 Mobile Museum evolved from a private collection that I began acquiring as a student at Ferris State University. I took an Intro to Sociology class in which the professor used Jim Crow memorabilia to teach about the history of racism in America. I found it to be a very compelling way to move the students out of our comfort zones and to have us engage in powerful discussions. Shortly after that class I started searching antique stores, garage sales and flea markets in northern Michigan trying to find stereotypical representations of African Americans in order to teach people in a similar way.
|Advertisement for “$50 Reward for Negro Girl names Angeline and segregated drinking fountain plaque.
Images courtesy of Khalid el-Hakim.
Also, being part of hip hop culture in the 80’s I was influenced by the music of Public Enemy, KRS-One, Rakim, Melle Mel and others. The music taught me about the reality of being Black in America and gave a historical perspective that wasn’t being taught in my high school history textbooks. So I was inspired to research, like many other hip hop fans of that era, the information that was being dropped in the music.
I took both of those influences and collected material objects that represented the Black experience from enslavement to hip hop culture. I came up with the name Black History 101 because its just an introduction to the Black experience in America. My wish is to always inspire people to go research the history I exhibit for themselves. The idea to make it mobile was simply to meet the needs of many young people from my hometown of Detroit not going to museums on a regular basis. I want to teach the value and importance of the museum experience so the idea came to me to take that experience straight to them.
C: While doing research I came across the quote by Professor Griff that “if young people are not going to come to the museum then we were determined to bring the museum to them.” That is a really important idea. What is the best (or most important) part of being a mobile museum?
K: The best part about being mobile is that we can go practically anywhere. I’ve been in someone’s living room one day and then on the campus of a major university like NYU, UNC or U of M the next day. I also have the opportunity to engage people who wouldn’t necessarily have gone to a museum any other time. Some youth just don’t have a desire to go to museums. I’ve heard a student say he believed museums were just big, cold places that didn’t reflect his history. So, I try to orientate students on the importance of museums in general and why having museums that reflect the Black experience is so important.
C: In 2011 the BH101MM celebrated its twentieth anniversary. What have been some of your proudest moments in these past 23 years?
K: I think just having the opportunity to travel to over 23 states and interact with thousands of people makes me extremely grateful. When I started off I had no idea that it would grow as large as it has nor that it would receive this type of recognition. A few of my proudest moments have been walking Angela Davis, Chuck D and KRS One through my exhibits. Also securing the archive of Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, Malcolm X’s best friend was a major acquisition that received national and international press. I was able to acquire Shorty’s archive in partnership with the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation in Omaha, Nebraska, which currently houses his memorabilia. Finally, having Rock n Roll Hall of Famer, Professor Griff of Public Enemy come out on the road as a guest speaker for the majority of my exhibits has been a huge blessing. His support has been invaluable.
C: How and what do you collect? Can you talk about some of the objects that you are particularly proud to have?
K: If you have ever seen the TV show American Pickers, that is exactly what I do. I travel the country going to antique shops and dig through dusty shelves, attics and basements trying to find the next artifact for the museum. I collect anything and everything that reflects the Black experience in America. I’ve recently been collecting a lot of hip hop memorabilia. After 40 years of hip hop being on the scene, I realized there wasn’t too many people collecting the material objects of this culture so I began to intentionally collect it about 20 years ago. So I’m very proud of this part of the collection. I just recently published a book titled The Center of the Movement: Collecting Hip Hop Memorabilia. I’m equally as proud of my collection of signed documents by a variety of historical figures including: Malcolm X, Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Shirley Chisholm, Michael Jackson, Adam Clayton Powell, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Spike Lee, Richard Pryor, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and many others.
|Three objects showing the range of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum collection.
Images courtesy of Khalid el-Hakim.
C: What are some of your future exhibit ideas and tour dates?
K: My latest exhibit is called The Peacemakers and it focuses on the 15 men and women of African descent who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. This is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King receiving this prestigious award. In the future I plan on exhibits that focus on Music, Black Inventors, Black Greek Fraternities/Sororities, and Sports.
These are the following tour dates for the Black History 101 Mobile Museum Tour 2014
February 3 University of Windsor (Windsor, ON)
February 4 Sparrow Health Systems (Lansing, MI)
February 6 Harrisburg Community College (Gettysburg, PA)
February 7 Lebanon Community College
February 10 Salem State University (Salem, MA)
February 11 UMASS (Amherst, MA)
February 12 Northeastern University (Boston, MA)
February 14 Huron High School (Ann Arbor, MI)
February 17 Wayne County Community College (Detroit, MI)
February 18 Concordia University (Chicago, IL)
February 19 and 20 University of Illinois (Champaign, IL)
February 25 Union College (Schenectady, NY)
February 28 Ferris State University (Big Rapids, MI)
March 25 Siena College (Loudonville, NY)
C: Your new book, The Center of the Movement: Collecting Hip Hop Memorabilia, sounds great! Here’s your moment to shamelessly plug it. (You can buy it directly from the BH101MM online store here)
K: The Center of the Movement: Collecting Hip Hop Memorabilia is a 275-page full color book that documents the material objects of hip hop culture. I interviewed some of the top individuals and institutions that are collecting and archiving hip hop. It has been well received nationally and internationally and I’m looking forward to updating it every 3-5 years.
C: Is there anything else you would like me to profile?
K: I would like to add that I’ve partnered with the 5 E Gallery in Detroit to have all my hip hop memorabilia permanently on display. The 5 E Gallery is a hip hop based education and arts program for youth. I’m very happy to know that people will have daily access to the Black History 101 Mobile Museum at that location. That exhibit opens February 21st.
C: Bonus question! How do you feel about being “the Schomburg of the Hip Hop Generation?” [Arthur Schomburg was a prominent historian, writer and advocate of African-American and Latino-African American history, art and culture.]
K: When I first heard that quote I was blown away. It was a great honor and I also felt a great responsibility. I don’t take it lightly and I am just working to make my mark and build a last legacy as those who’ve come before me. The biggest honor of my career thus far was having a two-day exhibit at the Schomburg Center last October. That was an experience I will never forget.