Chicago's DuSable Museum is not, at this point in its relatively brief history, an all-day experience. You can take in the permanent and special exhibitions and walk the parkland grounds in a scant few hours. But in a city packed with museums that'll test your endurance and your orienteering skills, having a significant one that is not so extensive comes almost as a relief.
The institution billing itself as one of the nation's first independent African-American history museums is part of a new initiative in its South Side Hyde Park neighborhood, a Museum Campus South that incorporates DuSable, the massive Museum of Science and Industry toward the lakefront, several more modest University of Chicago-affiliated museums and Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House (more at visitmuseumcampussouth.com).
Combine DuSable and one or two of the others, and you have a full and varied day of information intake and cultural uplift. An especially apt pairing would be the university's Oriental Institute Museum, with its focus on the ancient world, including Egypt, serving as an artifact-rich elaboration on the DuSable's brief section on Egyptian kings and queens.
Compared with DuSable's founding, in 1961 — in the South Side home of educator and artist Margaret Burroughs — the present-day place is sprawling, with a big expansion in the works. It was first the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art. Now it is, officially, the DuSable Museum of African American History.
And what will you see at this museum named after Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the Haitian-born trader credited with founding Chicago in the 1780s, becoming the first non-native settler roughly near the site of the present day Michigan Avenue bridge.?
At the entryway, gracefully decorated by mosaic murals from Chicago artist Thomas H. Miller, a series of panels pays close, detailed homage to four Chicago writers: Richard Wright ("Native Son"), Lorraine Hansberry ("A Raisin in the Sun"), poet Gwendolyn Brooks and, in a bit of a surprise, Studs Terkel, the white oral historian of the working class. Credit to the museum for paying more attention to the content of a man's work than to the color of his skin. Pick up the handset and listen to Terkel's conversation with Brooks.
Down the hall is an intriguing, small gift shop, the DuSable Trading Post, that marches to its own drummer rather than stocking the same dozen items you see at every other museum in town. If you have muskrat in mind, you're out of luck; there aren't the pelts and such that DuSable sold in setting up shop at a trading crossroads. There is a fine slogan on a T-shirt: "Du Something."
Further on, a bronze bust of DuSable, by sculptor Robert James, is a proud and potent thing, almost fierce in its outlook. (Throughout the place, you'll be reminded that showcasing art alongside history was one of the founding ideals.) Above that, a wall plaque tells you everything the museum has to offer about its namesake; if you want more, you can find it on the museum's well-done Discovering DuSable Digitally website (virtualdusable.com).
Back in the museum proper, the first gallery, Africa Speaks, is an updated version of an exhibit Burroughs and her husband Charles showed in their home, artifacts from the motherland. The continent is divided by region, with details about each, and an exceptional collection ranging from the lowest tools of degradation (iron shackles) to high art.
Pass through the hallway devoted to the Egyptian royalty and into an exhibition on African-Americans in the country's armed forces. Stretching back to the Revolutionary War, it tells a fascinating story, augmented by personal effects such as those of Maj. Robert Lawrence. The Chicagoan perished as a passenger in a military plane crash just six months after being named the country's first black astronaut, in 1967.
There's a special exhibition space to the east of the military display. This summer it held a traveling show on the art of northeast Brazil. Opening Friday is "Spirits of the Passage: The Story of the Transatlantic Slave Trade." Even as boxes were being unpacked and objects from a sunken slave ship being unwrapped, it looked to be a first-rate exhibition.
Moving into the newer Harold Washington Wing brings you face to face — alarmingly so, if you aren't prepared — with Harold Washington. There's a life-size animatronic replica of the city's first black mayor seated behind an old desk of his, holding forth on his election and too-brief tenure (and freaking out some little kids who see it, employees say).
"When you visit again, I will tell you about my time in office and Council Wars," the robot replica says. "See you soon."
On a lower floor is more exhibition space, currently devoted to popular culture and, to some of us, to remaking the acquaintance of Fat Albert, Josie and the Pussycats and the animated edition of the Jackson 5. The temporary exhibit "Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution" looks at Saturday morning cartoons and their 1970s inclusion of African-American characters.
Another section on that lower level highlights the museum's principal founder , Burroughs.
The DuSable rests in a beautiful piece of Washington Park. The front lawn seems to stretch on forever. This summer the museum took advantage of its locale by hosting outdoor series for movies, jazz music and dancing. Upcoming community events include a discussion of the theatrical adaptation of "Native Son," at University of Chicago's Court Theatre.
The building itself is a gem, designed by renowned Chicago architect and planner Daniel Burnham. That it was a headquarters for Chicago Park District police, according to museum employees, only adds to the charm.
The front of this building, where DuSable moved in 1971, is among the most elegant any Chicago museum can offer, and the competition is stiff. In back a 1993 addition, the Harold Washington Wing, brought much needed gallery space and a 450-seat theater. But it is more about utility than high style.
Across the street to the south, however, is another gem, the former roundhouse for the police station, also designed by Burnham and taken over by DuSable in 2002 for a planned expansion.
The building is surprisingly graceful, considering its past as a horse stable. A walk inside reveals expansive interior space, 60,000 square feet of it planned for the museum. The roundhouse portion in particular will take your breath away. It's a big, open circular room spiked floor-to-ceiling with support beams and surrounded up top by skylights.
Finishing the building has been a challenge, however. A $25 million fundraising campaign is underway, and now 2017 is the opening date, already much delayed. (A detail on the museum website pegged one planned opening to 2009.)
The round room and the ones surrounding it are just begging to tell more stories about the Chicago African-American experience. The great migration from the South, for instance. Bronzeville in its heyday. The rise and fall of the mega housing projects. The gospel music story. The list of significant and visitor-friendly potential exhibitions goes on and on.
Don't miss: Behind the DuSable bust, in the Ames Auditorium, there's a massive piece of art from the room's namesake, lawyer and sculptor Robert Witt Ames. The Freedom Now Mural is a wall-size wood carving by Ames that tells the story of Africans in America, in details both wrenching and beautiful. It's compelling as craftsmanship and as history and is, the museum says, "one of several (works) in the DuSable's fine art collection that features minority subject matter created by non-African Americans."
Don't bother: If you're looking for a cafe, stop; that'll come when the roundhouse project is complete. Although the museum does a steady field-trip business, having a cafe on the premises would help. For now, try a picnic lunch on the front patio, or fit your DuSable stop in between meals, heading over to the bustling area at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue for sustenance.
Pro tips: Take advantage of free Sunday admission, year round. DuSable's attendance figures are modest (about 100,000 annually), but parking can be a bear. University of Chicago medical buildings have stretched up to Cottage Grove Avenue, just east of the museum, and the available street spots in Washington Park, around the museum, fill up on weekdays. The university is building a hulk of a parking garage that looms over DuSable's eastern view but may open up some street spaces for people who want to drive to the museum. In the meantime, try public transportation; the No. 2 and 4 buses from the Loop go almost directly to the door.
DuSable Museum of African American History
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: 740 E. 56th Place
Tickets: $10 adults (free on Sundays); 773-947-0600 or dusablemuseum.org