How to Build a Museum (Review)
Updated: Nov 21
Author: Tonya Bolden
Publisher: Viking Books for Children, 2016
Interest Level: Ages 10 and up
Reading Level: Lexile 1150L
Retail: $17.99, hardcover
Summary: This is the story of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The book has three main parts. First we learn of how political and racial forces conspired against the creation of the museum. Then we learn about how the museum was planned and built. Finally, we are taken on a tour of its exhibits, viewing photos, documents, and artifacts from the collections.
Given the highly charged subject matter of this book, the text is surprisingly measured and and even somewhat dispassionate at times. I assume this title was heavily vetted by Smithsonian officials who did not want the book to alienate white audiences as it sat on gift store shelves. However, it succeeds in conveying the racism that was behind the decades of delay in realizing the dream behind this museum without actually using the term. A simple chronology of events is enough to make plain the injustice of waiting so long to honor African American history at this scale.
This book also gives an interesting view into the logistics of creating a new museum from scratch, from finding a site, complying with environmental regulations, designing the building, defining the museum mission, and assembling the collection. The picture painted by the narrative makes me think about the contrast between this museum and some of the older, "venerable" museums that evolved out of cabinets of curiosity without concern or respect for minorities or indigenous populations. For older children, this book can spark interesting discussions and conversations about how we should preserve and celebrate the history people who have different perspectives than our own.
About the book itself: It includes a table of contents, facts and figures about the museum, and an index. The vocabulary level of How to Build a Museum is high, and the political and historical concepts covered in the lengthy text may not be understood by children under 10. I like that a few terms are defined in the text (e.g. plinth, lagging) without feeling heavy handed. The format of the book reminds me of a museum exhibit with long text panels punctuated by color photographs of objects and documents with descriptive captions. This title is very much a souvenir of the museum itself. However, it is also very engaging to read from cover to cover, as I did, even if you have yet to visit. Children may prefer to browse the pages rather than read straight through.
On the whole, this is a fairly lightweight book for addressing systemic racism. For those looking to provide guidance to children about social justice issues in an age-appropriate way, or to find lists of diverse & inclusive children's books that challenge bias, I highly recommend that you check Rebekah Gienapp's blog.