The Money Museum Gets Funky
Ms. Thomas and Ms. Williamson opened their online museum, which has all the usual elements of the brick-and-mortar kind, including a gift shop with T-shirts and coffee mugs, as a way of celebrating their blackness and their mutual love of 1970s black culture. “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” cartoon cels and blaxploitation movie posters can be viewed at the museum site. So can recorded interviews with James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Teddy Pendergrass, and the work of the pioneering black cartoonist Morrie Turner, whose comics appeared in publications like Negro Digest and Ebony.
A comprehensive “’Fro Back” exhibition offers a tour of the hairstyle. “’Fro Back,” like each of the museum’s 20 online exhibitions — “Black Barbie” is another — has titles and text panels. It includes a vintage Afro Sheen commercial and a slide show of Afros on household names like Malcolm X and Michael Jackson.
Ms. Thomas, 55, and Ms. Williamson, 53, who live together in New Jersey but won’t disclose where because a large portion of their collection lives with them, met through a personal ad 20 years ago. “When I saw that Loreen had a collection of animation art,” Ms. Thomas recalled, “I said, ‘Where are the black cartoons?’” She had studied African-American history in college, and Ms. Williamson had always been interested in black history. “I thought it was a good question,” Ms. Williamson said.
They started the collection with one “Fat Albert” cel. By about a year later, they had about 30, and now the collection has ballooned to around 12,000 objects, including black advertising tins and black postage stamps, and all of it is self-funded. In the late ’90s, they opened a gallery in Summit, N.J. But the aftermath of 9/11 forced them to close.
“The community was in mourning,” Ms. Thomas said, and foot traffic slowed so much it didn’t make sense to stay open.
“Having the gallery space, just the physicality involved in moving stuff and hanging art, was hard enough, and something I would rather not do again,” Ms. Williamson said. “So I said, ‘How about we put our stuff online first, and maybe we can have a physical space later?’”
The move from physical to digital worked so well that they never looked back.
Hundreds of thousands of people have now visited the site, including representatives of colleges, libraries and institutions like the Museum of American Finance.
If the online address sounds like a destination for the nostalgic or the lighthearted, it is. “We’re basically stuck in the ’70s, and we know other people are, too,” said Ms. Williamson, who works on the site full time. Ms. Thomas is a preschool teacher — she limits her funky endeavors to after-school hours.
“When we were kids growing up eating cereal in front of cartoons on Saturday mornings, we saw some of the first positive representations of black people on television,” through shows like “The Jackson 5ive,” Ms. Williamson said.
Ms. Thomas said, “We were the first generation that benefited from that, and we know other people appreciate those memories and want to relive them too.” But they recognize that the UnCut Funk museum is also becoming a place for serious scholarship. This is by design.
For example, the coins. Ms. Thomas and Ms. Williamson started to promote “For the Love of Money,” one of five traveling Museum of UnCut Funk shows, in response to the news that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill in 2020. The exhibition’s title is a nod to the O’Jays tune.
“We sort of realized that things have come full circle, with happy slaves being depicted picking cotton on Confederate currency just before the Civil War, to Obama’s bronze medals for being the first African-American president, to Harriet Tubman being on the new 20 and Sojourner Truth having a turn on the 10 and Marian Anderson being on the 5 in 2020 — which I hope still happens,” Ms. Thomas said.
The seriousness of the museum has been recognized not just by the Museum of American Finance, but also by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, site of the first traveling show Ms. Thomas and Ms. Williamson organized, “Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution,” in 2014. A version of that show, made up mostly of the animation art, including “Fat Albert,” later traveled to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan., and the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. Google, too, has taken notice. The women have teamed up with Google Arts & Culture, where visitors can see more than 240 artifacts from their collection.
The plan is to keep expanding the collection, and to keep curating and lending it. But Ms. Williamson acknowledged that there are still kinks to be worked out.
“People go to school to learn how to run a museum,” she said. “We’ve never done any of that. It’s like any entrepreneurial thing. We’re working hard and learning as we go.”
And, in the process, reliving the decade they love.
“It was just a very cool time to be black in the ’70s,” Ms. Thomas said. “There was all this blackness bursting out everywhere, with dashikis and dancing and the mother ship coming down to get you,” she said, referring to the Apollo-inspired stage prop used to represent Afrofuturism by George Clinton, frontman of the band Parliament-Funkadelic.
“We funketeers from the ’70s are a special group of people,” Ms. Thomas said. “We’ve got to keep it up.”
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