History of museums - The South End: Archives

Logout|My Dashboard

History of museums

Many of Detroit’s historical institutions have undergone changes

Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 12:10 pm, Fri Apr 5, 2013.

The museums throughout Detroit make up much of our city’s culture. Through the decades, each of the museums has expanded and changed in its own way.

*Detroit Institute of Arts*

The Detroit Institute of Arts has been part of Detroit’s culture since 1885. In the 1960s and 1970s, the museum added two additional wings. Then, in 1999, the museum began major renovations that were completed in 2007.

Pam Marcil, public relations director at the DIA, said that during that renovation, “we completely reinstalled every gallery and changed the way we present art to public in that we made it much more accessible to the general visitor. Our mission changed simply to ‘To help each visitor find personal meaning in art.’”

In order to fulfill their new mission, the museum reopened in 2007 to an increased gallery space, improved traffic pattern, more visitor amenities and better temperature and humidity control to benefit the art in the collection.

When they reinstalled the gallery, they shifted away from grouping objects by time period and style and in¬stead decided to group objects based on the story they were telling. For example, they had sections called “Art and Cycle of Life,” “Grand Tour of Italy” and “The Dutch Golden Age.” They also upgraded their technology by incorporating handheld computers that visitors could borrow in order to take a multimedia tour of the museum.

The museum also added a virtual dining experience that allowed guests to experience a formal meal from 18th century Europe. In addition to the dining experience, they also added a life-size video of a ceremonial African dance.

Marcil said that since the 1960s, when the first additions were added onto the museum’s building, it has housed major exhibitions that have included “Van Gogh: Face to Face,” “Cleopatra’s Egypt,” “The Splendor of Ancient Egypt,” “The Art of the Muppets,” “Angels from the Vatican,” “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” “Degas and the Dance” and “Faberge: The Rise and Fall.”

Most recently, however, was the August 2012 millage that was passed by voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties that allow their residents free general admission to the museum.

*Detroit Historical Museum*

The Detroit Historical Museum opened its doors in 1928. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the museum expanded to its current size and emerged as one of the leading cultural hubs due to its changing exhibits, events, educational programs and tours, according to Bob Sadler, director of public relations for the

Detroit Historical Society, Sadler said that the museum “has had at least four major renovations — in the 1960s, 1995, 2006 and 2012.”

In 1995, the museum campaigned for a new Motor City exhibit created for the 1996 Motor City Centennial.

Sadler said most recently “the museum undertook a $12 million renovation … In the ‘60s the museum was operated with public money from the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit. In 2006, it transitioned to being funded by The Detroit Historical Society, which is a nonprofit; however, the museum is still owned by the city and the collection is still the property of Detroit.”

The technology of the museum has advanced to touchscreen exhibits, video elements and more interactive pieces that appeal to kids. Sadler said the museum has recently placed a greater effort on learning. One of their most striking new exhibits is the “Doorway to Freedom” exhibit, which shows how Detroit was a pivotal part of the Underground Railroad. Even with the changes in scale, funding and exhibits, Sadler said their mission has always stayed the same: “to present and to preserve the history of Southeast Michigan.”

*Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History*

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History has gone through many names, locations, forms and exhibits since its opening in 1965. Since the ‘60s, the museum has gained more support and a more full public involvement as the times have radically changed.

The museum originally opened under the hands of Dr. Charles Wright along with 30 other Detroiters. In its original form, it was named the International Afro- American Museum and was located on W. Grand Boulevard. At this time, the museum was trying to show the history of African-Americans and displayed items such as African masks from Nigeria and Ghana.

A year later, they converted a mobile home into a touring museum and traveled around the state to gain additional momentum and supporters. Their goal was to educate others about the contributions that African Americans made to society.

Twelve years later the city of Detroit leased the museum a piece of land located between John R and Brush streets. Then, in 1985, the city of Detroit paired with the museum in order to construct a new $3.5 million building on Fredrick Douglas Avenue. At this time, the name of the museum was changed to the Museum of African-American History. The larger space allowed the museum not only to share exhibits with visitors, but also added educational lectures, cultural celebrations, music concerts and festivals to its offerings.

In 1992, the voters of Detroit decided to fund an even larger building. The new space opened in 1997 as the largest African- American history museum in the world. A year later, the museum was renamed once again to honor the man who originally ignited the idea of the museum, becoming the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

*Motown Museum*

Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Lionel Richie & the Commodores and Teena Marie — all present powerful voices that changed the flavor of music.

Walking into The Motown Museum, which was originally the Motown Records recording studio, visitors can absorb the energy and soul of legendary musicians. Berry Gordy opened Motown Records in 1959. In 1985, Esther Gordy Edwards founded the museum where visitors can experience the auras of Studio A, where the music and lyrics were recorded, while also taking a trip upstairs to the restored upper flat where Berry Gordy, and his family lived during their early years.

The museum is also home to many artifacts, photos and memorabilia depicting how Berry Gordy turned an idea into one of the most successful recording companies in American history. The museum is currently a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Its goal is to preserve the legacy of The Motown Record Corporation at its original site while also educating and inspiring creativity in visitors in the hope of reviving the energy of the Motown music scene as it once was.

*The Michigan Science Center*

The museum Detroit now knows as the Michigan Science Center has had a tumultuous history as it matured through the years. In 1970, the museum originally opened as the Detroit Science Center in a modest Detroit storefront with funding from the Ferry Family Foundation. Six years later, work started on a new building at John R and Warren, opening their new doors to the public two years later in 1978. However, the museum experienced its first financial troubles in 1991 and had to close due to state funding cuts.

During this time, in order to gain revenue, the museum rented out wings of its building with one wing being temporarily rented by The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. In 1992, the museum was able to reopen.

Under the direction of Mel Drumm, the museum was officially able to get out of debt between 1995 and 1997. In 2000, the museum closed for a $30 million expansion with the aim of reopening to the public in 2001. The museum was able to stay stable and open to the public for the following decade.

During this time they had their first traveling exhibit in 2003: “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit.” In 2006 the museum took the initiative to become America’s premier engineering-focused museum with exhibits including the “Matter & Energy Gallery,” “new Space,” “Medical and Transportation” galleries and a new “Careers in Engineering Theater.”

In 2008, the museum partnered with the Thompson Education Foundation in order to foster youth education by expanding and creating a new college-prep charter school, the University Prep Science and Math Middle School, currently open today.

In late September 2011, the museum experienced financial trouble and had to close its doors again. In late December 2012, the museum reopened after raising more than $5 million from more than 25 organizations and donors, such as The General Motors Foundation, Toyota Technical Center, The Ford Foundation, Penske Corporation and the Manoogian Fund.

Under its new name, the Michigan Science Center, the museum focuses on health-centered exhibits. It is currently hosting a special traveling “Bodies Human: Anatomy in Mo¬tion” exhibit, featuring a “display of over 100 authentic human specimens, including whole bodies, individual organs and transparent body slices,” according to the museum website.

Rules of Conduct

  • 1 Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
  • 2 Don't Threaten or Abuse. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated. AND PLEASE TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
  • 3 Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
  • 4 Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
  • 5 Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
  • 6 Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Welcome to the discussion.

Online poll


Follow us on Facebook