American society is frequently defined by its diversity. The population of the U.S. is an extraordinary mix of nearly every ethnic group and race found on earth. Each group has brought its own language, customs, traditions, music, dance, food, and religion. The attitude in the country in the past thirty years is that all of this enriches the social structure. OriginallyAmerican society was defined primarily by the European values imported by the original immigrants in the 1600s with a little derived from the lesser indigenous Native American heritage. What can be seen as a schyzophrenia of identity has been reflected in the museums of the United States since its founding. The art and history represented the mainstream majority European heritage. The artists displayed, the milestones achieved, and the individuals who drove the nation reflected this heritage; the audiences who visited these institutions were most frequently members of the majority society. Art and history museums in the United States until the latter decades of the twentieth centuries marginalized the contributions of non-white artists.
As part of the Americanization movement of the early decades of the twentieth century, several expositions of arts and artifacts, music, dance and sports found in immigrant communities were staged in cities across the United States. While raising pride in participating community members, these temporary displays were meant to show the remnants of culture that would be shed as the immigrants became part of the American melting pot. Then from the mid1970s to the 1990s, the focus of many institutions was turned toward recognizing over a century of socio-cultural contributions by non-white members of society. Public funding for arts and humanities programs in these communities burgeoned. Growing affluence in these communities was recognized as a potential funding source by mainstream museums. The twenty-first century shows a growing number of single ethnic museums with concerns towards collections management, interpretation, staff training and the ever puzzling source of funding.
This paper reflectively examines the development of ethnic museums in the United States and the attitudes within the supporting communities toward their genesis. The purpose of this paper is to understand the background which led to the creation of single-ethnic group museums. Oftentimes, the formation of single-ethnic group museums was a grass roots movement seeking to solve the problems of equal representation of history, artists, and culture. Through this movement, reaching maturity at different times in different communities, not only has equity been the goal, but also community (society) involvement in some communities which had little affinity for the institution of ?museum.?
This paper will briefly survey some attempts and achievements of representing non-white history and cultural traditions in American museums throughout the twentieth century. The questions of what kind of museums are needed, for what types of societies will be addressed.