Stringing It Together

Lorcan O'Herlihy renovates Detroit's African Bead Museum

Detroit's African Bead Museum (Courtesy Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects)

The Detroit office of Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA) has unveiled its initial phase of a small-budget, big-ambition renovation of one of the city’s most remarkable cultural institutions: the MBAD African Bead Museum, an independent exhibition space devoted to African material culture and art.

The museum comprises three townhouses and a 6,000-square-foot backyard sculpture garden that together stretch across almost a whole city block. Founder, owner, artist, and self-styled visual storyteller Olayami Dabls uses rocks, mirrors, wood, and iron to create sculptures that are parables for the development of African and African-American history and culture. According to its website, Dabls created the museum to help visitors better understand the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement through his sculptures and his collection of African objects.

Colorful birds-eye collage of the MBAD African Bead Museum complex

Master plan of the renovated MBAD African Bead Museum complex. One of LOHA’s main objectives is to stabilize the main museum building in the lower left corner of this image. (Courtesy Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects)

The African Bead Gallery, a museum store, is as intriguing as the sculptures: trays of beads are the forest floor to strung beads and artifacts from the collection that cover the walls and overhead displays. Outside, the facade is covered in Dabls’s colorful glass-and-mirror mosaic murals.

As beautiful as it is, the museum’s physical space is in serious disrepair. One of the townhouse’s roof has collapsed, and the exterior walls are precarious. Over time and if funding permits, LOHA will reinforce the structure internally and build galleries, a new entrance, and a landscape within the new envelope.

Colored section of a three story building

Section of the townhouse that contains the museum store, lower left (Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects)

The initial $100,000 renovation zeroed in on augmenting the museum’s exhibition space and performing urgent repairs. LOHA turned a run-down storage room into a 600-square-foot gallery and community events space that will allow for more exhibitions from the museum’s collection, plus work from artists in Detroit and beyond. Beyond the new gallery, improvements include new heating and electrical systems, new windows, and a public restroom.

“For the first time in 17 years, we will have a space where we can engage the community through storytelling programs and make the museum available to the people who need a gathering space,” Dabls said in a press release. “This adds a whole new dimension to our plans for the future.”

A celebration of the renovated gallery is planned for June 22.

This round of renovations was funded by crowdsourced donations via a campaign in partnership with Allied Media Projects. Subsequent renovations are contingent on more fundraising. The museum is already looking to add a main entrance, a central gallery, new admin facilities, and a fund for visiting artist residencies.

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