“The Complications of Community”: Student Associates visit Shorefront Legacy Center

In early November, the Block Museum Student Associates (BMSAs) visited the Shorefront Legacy Center to hear from Founder Dino Robinson Jr. on the role of a community archive. Founded in 2002, Shorefront Legacy Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, and educating visitors on Black histories from Chicago’s suburban North Shore communities. Facilitated by Erin Northington, Associate Director of Campus and Community Education and Engagement, the visit provided our BMSA cohort an important learning opportunity to bridge on-going discussions on museum practice to consider our community relationships and impact beyond Northwestern’s campus. 

Located in the basement of Sherman United Methodist Church of Evanston, Shorefront Legacy Center is about a fifteen minute walk off campus. I’d never yet ventured to the center, though I’d heard of it in passing from Dino’s involvement as a co-facilitator for the Block’s Evanston Community Advisory group for the Block’s past exhibition A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence (2022). One recurring topic of the BMSA program has been to critically engage with the idea of the “museum” as a powerful cultural institution, and from this, our cohort has been discussing meaningful ways museums might vary from and also support other community and cultural networks. Therefore, going into the visit, I was looking forward to hearing Dino’s own reflections on what an equitable partnership between a community archive and museum might look like. 

During our visit, Dino shared that he started Shorefront out of a personal interest in archival work and telling the often forgotten stories of intensely local life—of community members, their children, and of neighborhoods themselves. For Dino, as someone who considers himself an Evanston transplant, one component to that was building relationships with respected community stakeholders early on. This trust allowed Dino and his team to build Shorefront’s archive with rich, historically significant, and often deeply personal material. For instance, Dino shared a number of distinct objects with our group: a medical briefcase with unknown initials embossed on it, the letters of a socialite, and a debutante dress covered with delicate fabric daffodils—all entrusted to the archive. Much like a museum curator, Dino also discussed the importance of object conservation by monitoring moisture, pests, and mildew. 

To me, the Shorefront Legacy Center’s rootedness in the sheer messiness, intersections, and complications of community is its greatest strength. Each object was accompanied by a different story and throughout our visit, I was struck by Dino’s passion, purpose, and investment in the center’s mission to keep and share these histories. At the visit’s conclusion, Dino encouraged us to critically consider our broad access as Northwestern students to support Shorefront’s legacy by utilizing the archive and highlighting these narratives in our research. As I continue to work in art and museum spaces, I hope to carry this spirit of interrogating what narratives may be left out or excluded from “history” and helping to facilitate museum partnerships with vibrant community resources like Shorefront. While a museum may possess more institutional weight, resources, and historical ‘authority,’ the value of community archives like Shorefront rests in the unique relationships and the stewardship they develop over time from the ground up. Overall, the BMSA trip to Shorefront was an incredible opportunity to understand the function and role of a community archive—I know I’ll be back.

– Submitted by Katy Kim (Art History and Political Science (2023), BMSA Program and Tour Coordinator 2022-23)

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