Museum as Folk

by Jamel Williams |

Growing up, I recall visiting 3 museums: The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. For each one I remember boarding the yellow school bus and racing to the back to sit with the cool kids. Visiting Museums was something I was excited about but only happened occasionally via school field trips, as I now realize our teachers who all lived in Long Island Suburbs probably wanted to provide us the experience and knowledge of other worlds outside of our own. Of course it was always a fun time, but I never grasped the essence of what type of experience museums provide for the people, or maybe I just didn’t understand what it provided for my people.

One of my recent struggles has been pretending to be museum cultured but actually not having the same experience and exposure as my peers. Museums were not readily available to me in my neighborhood growing up. One would tell me that at my current age and ability, I have the opportunity to explore different museums and become well versed in the experiences that I’ve missed out on. My response to that person would be, I’ve had no choice but to try to expose myself to museums however, my ability to understand them, absorb the information and be inspired by the artifacts is disabled.

Presently, I try to attend museums when I can. I don’t attend as many as I probably should because I am intimidated and overwhelmed by the material. At this point it would be helpful to learn how to interact with the pieces and information the museums offer but presently, we still have no “beginner” museums in my community. Ethnic communities are currently going through what everyone likes to call gentrification. Generally there is a change in scenery, more housing developments, more stores that have replaced age-old mom and pop shops.

Does the absence of museums in ethnic communities relate to identity issues? I watch my younger brothers as they grow and realize that though I complain about not having local access to museums throughout my years of enculturation, they are really in a more troubling place. The schools they attend don’t have the funding to frequent museum trips, and the communities are more detached from culture. All they have left are the community parks to play sports. While sports are important to children for their physical ability, what about their intellectual ability to understand who they are and where they come from? Parents have the capacity to teach culture and tradition but with no museums in the community, they have no incentive to do so because they are slowly losing the history themselves.

Based on the idea that museums are numerically more present than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined[1], there should be a plethora of museums to choose from as I travel my streets. We have few positive outlets in our neighborhoods that empower us to learn more and develop, to have the capability to stretch beyond our communities to understand the cultures of others. In a nutshell, we never were given the opportunity to dialogue with our own heritage and culture so how can we know how to dialogue with others? Part of the responsibility of a museum in my opinion is to serve as a remote replica of the essence of a group’s culture and experience. Without museums in our own community we cannot properly voyage these replicas of the world.

With culture and history absent in the home, in the schools, in the communities, what institution is left? For my children, I am relying on museums of the future to help me educate them on the culture that I’ve never fully grasped. I’m relying on museums to be the folk storyteller who sat fireside and entertained people with stories of the past. I am relying on museums to tell the stories grandparents and great grandparents belt out when they reminisce on how life used to be.


1. Ingraham, C. (June 13, 2014). Washington Post.


As a young aspiring interior designer, Jamel Williams is passionate about utilizing design in accompaniment with his background in Anthropology to create spaces that connect with and offer charity to the people. He has an Undergraduate Degree from Queens College, a Bachelors of Arts in Anthropology, and he is currently pursing a Master’s of Fine Arts in Interior Design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. With having no previous design experience Jamel is learning all he can to develop the necessary skills to be an asset to those he will work with in the future to create people serving designs.