That is the question asked at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
While I was in town recently for a conference, I dragged my old college roommate there. Although she has been a resident of the city since we both left Boston, she had never visited the museum. I remember being very excited about it when it first opened in 2005; in fact, I think I even wrote a post about it on my old blog. So I knew I couldn’t visit the city and not visit MoAD.
I am tempted to compare MoAD to the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center, which I blogged about this summer. That would be, perhaps, an unfair comparison.
The Underground Railroad museum is working with probably 10 times more space for one thing. The exhibits are more emotionally charged at the Underground Railroad Museum just by nature of their content, and are a lot more participatory than the exhibits at the more gallery-like MoAD. There are also probably important differences in terms of ownership of the real estate that the two institutions inhabit that might partially account for how MoAD is able (and unable) to use its building, though I do not know for sure what all these details are.
Given these differences, though, I do think that MoAD could better utilize its small space. The exhibit space was small to begin with, and configured strangely—Rule number one of any public space is that it should not be so difficult to find the restroom.
But I was happy to see that the space was being used as a community gathering area: During my visit there was a respectable group there to hear artist Richard Mayhew speak. We did not have time to listen to the lecture but did enjoy the retrospective of his work.
There were creative uses of some of the spaces: Both the stairwell and the elevator were covered in hundreds of images of the people that make up the African diaspora, for example. And the space itself is gorgeous from a design standpoint. The small gift shop was impressive. The staff was welcoming and knowledgeable—the two young Black men working there who tried to talk us into attending the lecture were especially wonderful to see. The place had the feel of an intimate, cozy, vibrant cultural salon. And the on-line museum is user-friendly, aesthetically pleasing, and educational.
That the museum exists is reason enough to be happy. Hopefully with more time—and more monetary support—the space can be transformed (and maybe enlarged) to better host its important themes.
It was definitely worth the visit.