LaNesha DeBardelaben is bringing deep experience in museums to her effort to raise NAAM to new heights.
LaNesha DeBardelaben sees a lot of herself in the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). They’ve both had successes and are ready to move on to a new stage of their development.
DeBardelaben, 37, was named executive director of the Seattle museum Dec. 6, after working 15 years in museums, the past six at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
“Once I stepped foot in this museum, I immediately knew that this is the place for me,” she said. “NAAM has so much potential and so much dynamism to it.”
NAAM, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary on March 8, had a difficult birth, starting as an idea in the early 1980s and working through conflicting community visions for what it should be — a traditional museum, a platform for community development or some combination of the two.
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“The agenda for NAAM is what I call the vitamin-E plan,” DeBardelaben said, “Enhancement, Engagement and Expansion.” The museum has a community that cares about it, and it has done well, she said, but it needs to grow. She wants to draw more people, not just from the city but from around the region, and to bring national notice to NAAM.
She’s starting from the ground up, literally, with new flooring in the galleries. The museum website is being redesigned, and she’s making connections in the community, looking toward eventual expansion.
The museum’s celebration of MLK Day this year had the largest attendance ever, she said, almost 70 percent more than last year. Partly it’s the times, but also NAAM reached out on social media in ways it never had before.
NAAM is sited in the former Colman School building, which was occupied by community activists who wanted the museum positioned in the neighborhood where the Central Area and Rainier Valley meet. Before gentrification, the location was in the midst of Seattle’s black community.
Norm Rice was Seattle mayor during the early stages of the museum’s creation and helped bring order to that process. He’s also a member of the current board.
Rice said DeBardelaben “is passionate, eager and knowledgeable, and really sees a future for NAAM that we are excited about as a board.” He said she knows how to put on exhibits, understands fundraising and has a solid vision of the future. “To find someone who checks all the boxes is difficult,” he said.
DeBardelaben calls the museum “a monument of strength, tenacity, fortitude and dedication.” And that, too, sounds like her. Last Thursday she told me about herself and her path to NAAM.
She grew up in Saginaw, a small Michigan city about a two-hour drive from Detroit. Her family had moved there in the 1930s looking for a better life than they could have in the South, migrating from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
She’s the middle of three children raised by their mother, who worked a series of jobs — in a pickle factory, in a meat plant — and who sometimes couldn’t find work at all.
They lacked money, but she felt loved and supported at home, in school and at church. Her parents and grandmother pushed her to do well in school so that she would have an easier life.
DeBardelaben said she saw her father only occasionally, but when he visited, he’d tell her about Hickory, Mississippi. She wanted to know more about her family’s journey north. “As a little girl I would make my way to the public library and read all these books about the Great Migration, how African Americans migrated north, and that drew me into history.”
That led her to study history in college, intending to become a high-school history teacher. But that goal changed when she accepted an opportunity to spend her junior year of college as an exchange student in Nairobi, Kenya. While she was there, she got a job as an education assistant at the National Museums of Kenya.
Growing up, she’d never even visited a museum.
“It helped me to realize that my passion for African-American history, my passion for education, my passion for literature could all be combined in a career in museums.”
She said that while artifacts are often central to mainstream museums, people are central to black museums. “Our minds are nurtured, our spirits are touched and inspired, our sense of self is enhanced and validated by black museums,” she said.
She came back, finished her degree, then enrolled in a master’s program in history and museum studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and worked at the Missouri Historical Society and the St. Louis Science Center.
With her M.A., she went to Flint, Michigan, to work as associate curator of programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Museum. She took programs into the community and brought in audiences and community groups that hadn’t previously connected with the museum.
She spent six years there, then, because she wanted to be better at using historical documents and other materials, and she went back to school for another master’s, this time in library science with a focus on archival management, at Indiana University Bloomington.
Completing that program presented another opportunity. The Wright Museum in Detroit was looking for an archivist, and she took the job as director of archives in 2011, eventually rising to senior vice president for education and exhibitions.
DeBardelaben is active in several national organizations, and at one conference last year she met a delegation from NAAM, which was looking for a new director. And she decided it was time to take another step in her journey.
DeBardelaben moved into an apartment that was walking distance from the museum, and she has been riding the bus getting to know Seattle and planning for NAAM’s future.
She said there is a lot of work ahead, “making this museum a world-class, nationally accredited museum. We are ready and we are committed and we will do it.”
She’s also working toward her Ph.D. in African-American history because she never stops moving forward.