The H.L. Hunt Museum and Cultural Center held a grand-opening ceremony Thursday at the old high school, which served as Columbus’ black high school until integration.
Yet the most interesting aspect of the grand opening was not the various artifacts of the city’s black schools and its culture, but the visitors themselves.
More than 100 residents turned out for the event, milling about the museum to look at old class pictures from Hunt and its predecessor, Union Academy, along with mementos of distinguished black celebrities ranging from local Tuskegee Airman Alva Temple to civil rights pioneer E.J. Stringer to a handful of sports celebrities.
Later, in one of the old Hunt classrooms, various civic leaders and museum officials spoke to the crowd about the importance of preserving the city’s black heritage and discussed plans for the future of the facility.
The building bears little resemblance to the artist’s rendering of the museum in its finished state.
Admittedly, the grand-opening was not intended to show off the facility in anything close to its finished state, said museum director Johnny Johnson. Johnson told the audience that he envisions a day when the building does indeed look like the rendering. He also envisions a day when visitors can hear the voices of some of those great black leaders via state-of-the-art technology.
In its current state, the real attractions were the smiles and animated conversations of the people who came to the event as they moved around the museum, laughing and talking and sharing memories of their beloved high school and the community.
At that moment, it would be hard to argue that the museum and cultural center does not enhance and strengthen the community. The black history of Columbus deserves to be preserved and celebrated.
That said, there are some legitimate concerns about whether the facility will achieve its worthy goal.
As presently constituted, the exhibits are not likely to bring a return visit. Once you have seen the class photos or portraits of past educators, is there a compelling reason to see them again?
Given these austere times, when every dollar spent deserves careful scrutiny, there is a legitimate concern as to whether the museum and cultural center will turn out to be a wise investment.
If, in 10 years, the facility has not found a way to remain relevant and fresh, will the expense of refurbishing and maintaining it be viewed as a wise choice? Was there not a more economically efficient means of telling the story?
Johnson made an appeal to visitors Thursday to share their personal mementos from the city’s black culture. But it remains to be seen if what is collected is compelling enough to make the museum viable in the years to come.
Perhaps there is a vision, as of yet unarticulated, that will ensure that the H.L. Hunt Museum and Cultural Center remains as compelling as it was during Thursday’s grand opening.
We hope that some of the money set aside will be used to attract speakers and programs that will entice citizens to return again and again. During Thursday’s event, one of the storytellers in town for the Possum Town Tales Storytelling festival enthralled the audience with a few stories. Perhaps that could be a model to follow.
The city’s black heritage is worth preserving, but the success of this endeavor depends on wise choices and careful planning.
The sooner the museum organizers can articulate that vision to the public, the better.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.