Haitian American Museum of Chicago in Uptown receives grant to digitize collection as it enters Grade 10

UPTOWN – Elsie Hernandez started the Haitian American Museum of Chicago with a modest collection.

“At first, I would upload photos to the internet and frame them,” Hernandez said with a laugh.

Now the Hernandez institution has started giving Americans a more detailed, nuanced view of the Caribbean nation ready for critical upgrades. A major grant will allow the museum at 4654 avenue N. Racine to digitize its collection for the first time. The added visibility and opportunity to educate Chicagoans about Haitians and Americans of Haitian descent comes just after the city renamed one of its iconic roads to Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first non-settler. native of Chicago.

For Hernandez, the grant is also a chance to further tell the story of Haiti from a Haitian perspective.

“Haitians always have foreigners doing things for us,” Hernandez said. “Haiti’s history is so rich, but the stories are not written by Haitians themselves.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
Enter the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, 4654 N. Racine Ave., Uptown on December 19, 2021.

Hernandez, a longtime Chicagoan born in Haiti, is a former nurse who recently made the transition to teaching biology classes at City Colleges in Chicago. She was inspired to create the museum after a volunteer trip to Haiti nine years ago, which included a visit to Cité Soleil, a notorious slum in Port-au-Prince.

“It’s not the same when you see poverty on TV,” Hernandez said. “I thought the best way to help was to focus on the positive aspects of the country. “

The experience motivated Hernandez to bring a different Haitian narrative to the United States and highlight the country’s cultural richness. With virtually no artistic training, Hernandez opened the Haitian American Museum in Chicago in November 2012.

The museum – at just 486 square feet – is tucked away at the corner of Racine and Leland avenues, with a large red and blue flag bearing the Haitian coat of arms waving to passers-by.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
Artwork at the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, 4654 N. Racine Ave., in Uptown on December 19, 2021.

As Hernandez built her museum, she took inspiration from Estrella Ravelo Alamar, a Filipina and West Side who self-funded a Philippine American museum and later became founding president of the Philippine American National Historical Society.

Hernandez relied on donations from community members to fund his small collection. The museum’s initial board was made up of five members, including Hernandez, his son, friends and relatives.

When the Field Museum opened its exhibition “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti” in 2016, museum executives called on Hernandez as a Haitian-American consultant, her “first major connection” to a larger museum. With this, Hernandez caught the eye of the Know Your Chicago women’s volunteer organization, whose members facilitated a reunion between Hernandez and Nicole Smith, a fellow Haitian American and famous Chicago conservative.

“When the women from Know Your Chicago came to visit me, they realized I had nothing,” Hernandez said. “It was all printed stuff.”

When Smith arrived in the United States in 1973, she sold Haitian artwork from her home and her car. She then opened the Nicole Gallery, 1723 N. Halsted St., where she became known for her collection of Haitian, African and African American art. Galerie Nicole closed in 2011 after 40 years.

“It was Nicole who loaned us all of her large paintings,” Hernandez said. “It was Nicole who made it look like a real museum. She said, ‘Elsie, I have to help you.’ “

A painting that belonged to Smith hangs on the west wall: an allegory of Haiti in the form of two horses pulling half of the island into the Caribbean Sea as colorful huts thread the backs of the horses and Haitians pull themselves together. move around the island.

Before Smith’s death in March 2016, she asked Hernandez to take ownership of the work she had accumulated in her gallery. Most of Smith’s collection, mostly paintings, are in storage because there isn’t enough room in the museum to display them all, Hernandez said.

The museum now has a permanent collection, a rotating collection, a library and a store. Current exhibits include works by Haitian and Haitian American artists, student artists from Truman College, and oral histories collected and donated by Chicago historian Courtney Joseph, whose parents emigrated from Haiti.

The museum has seven executive members and 10 interns and volunteers. Over the years, museum leaders have partnered with other community organizers, for example by raising funds to support the Haitian-Polish community in Haiti. The museum joined the Chicago Cultural Alliance in 2015.

“It is so important to recognize and learn more about the contributions and resilience of the Haitian community in Chicago,” said Marie Rowley, communications manager for the Chicago Cultural Alliance. “The museum has created a beautiful welcoming space for education, reflection and celebration.”

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago

The museum has also been involved in the city’s efforts to honor perhaps the most famous Haitian in its history. In June, city council renamed the outer portion of Lake Shore Drive to Jean Baptiste Point of Sand Lake Shore Drive, an effort that had been underway for years.

Hernandez was consulted about the name change and called it a “victory”. Ald. David Moore (17th), who helped lead the name change, said in October that it “opens the door for everyone to learn more” about du Sable’s contributions to modern Chicago.

Du Sable, a black man believed to be of Haitian descent, is often considered the founder of Chicago. He and his wife, Kitihawa, settled where the Chicago River and Lake Michigan meet in 1779, establishing a trading post and farm before selling the property in 1800 and moving to St. Charles Harbor.

In addition to a school and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Hyde Park, a small monument dedicated to Sand can be found near the DuSable Bridge on Michigan Avenue.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
Du Sable Lake Shore Drive as seen from the 360 ​​CHICAGO Observation Deck in the Streeterville neighborhood on April 30, 2021

Beyond the Sand, Hernandez said she and her team have the opportunity to help Chicagoans learn more about the city’s Haitian diaspora.

In July, the museum received a $ 20,000 Broadening Narratives grant from the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which supports archival projects sharing stories of racial, sexual, gender and other historically sub-identities. represented.

The grant helped hire archivist Eve Mangurten to digitize the museum’s entire collection so the public can view it at all times. Mangurten has been working in the field of archives for over a decade.

“It is important that a collection is accessible to the public and to the museum, because it is important to know what they have so that they can properly make the material available to anyone who wants to access it,” Mangurten said.

Accessibility to the public is a common theme in the objectives of the museum. Mangurten will spend a year archiving the museum’s vast collection in a digital catalog. She will also host public presentations of the collection.

“Our collection will be available for the public to view, think about and research,” said museum executive director Carlos Bossard. “In the long term, digitizing the collection will help uncover stories of the Haitian community that are being overlooked. “

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
Carlos Bossard poses for a portrait at the Haitian American Museum in Chicago on December 21, 2021.

Bossard said he hopes the grant will help the museum find additional funds over the next year to retain the collection specialist post once Mangurten completes his work.

“What museums do is it changes your perception,” Hernandez said. “I don’t have to impose my own views. People come in, they smell it, they touch it, they see it. The grant will help make my culture and Haiti more accessible to the public. Now they can smell it, touch it and see it in a digital space.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
Elsie Hernandez poses for a portrait at the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, 4654 N. Racine Ave., in Uptown on December 19, 2021.

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