If you tugged the doors at the Mobile Museum of Art (4850 Museum Drive) after Nov. 16, you found an unwelcome surprise. The museum closed for at least a week citing an “unexpected mechanical malfunction” as cause.
More accurately, it was an issue with the environmental controls, a vital component in protecting artwork from the central Gulf Coast’s humid environment. City of Mobile Director of Cultural Affairs Matt Anderson cited “one of the chillers for the air conditioner system” as the culprit.
“We still kept some field trips that came through today and still had them on their routes because none of the areas the kids were going to contained sensitive art pieces,” Anderson said.
Anderson pointed out the bump in temperature and relative humidity after weather shifted the day before the mechanical failure. Staff removed art from the areas of the facility affected. The pieces were relocated to on-site storage — the museum houses more than 10,000 works — with its own environmental control.
“Johnson Controls is the company who has our maintenance agreement, and it took them maybe a half-hour [for repairs]. I was on-site earlier and sure enough, the building was cooling back off,” Anderson said.
A quick comparison to 2020’s Hurricane Sally experience was made. The mid-September storm knocked out electricity across the Mobile Bay area and left the museum in the dark in hot and humid conditions. According to Anderson, the museum wasn’t prioritized by Alabama Power since “there weren’t really residents on that spur [of the power grid].” He called Alabama Power.
“Whenever I told them kind of the scale and magnitude of the operation we had there, they made it happen very quickly,” Anderson said.
There’s significant investment in the nearly 60-year-old operation. Beyond its $15 million 2002 renovation, there’s long-term effort.
“I mean, obviously, the facility, but the collection, which is owned by the Mobile Museum of Art Board, the price of that collection would be hard to quantify,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the plan was to keep the museum closed for a week to ensure no other problems develop.
The museum’s next big event is unaffected since it isn’t on the museum grounds at all. Historian Scotty Kirkland will appear at the University of South Alabama’s Marx Library on Dec. 2, 6 p.m., for a discussion on Mobile’s civil rights history. A former curator at the History Museum of Mobile, Kirkland has authored a book on the Azalea City’s civil rights history a decade in the making. His appearance is in conjunction with the museum exhibit assembled from Gordon Parks’ 1956 Life magazine pictorial on racial segregation.
“Parks’ photos have an ‘every man, every city’ quality to them,” Kirkland said. “It belies this idea that Mobile was somehow drastically different — and by ‘different,’ defined as ‘better’ — than other Southern cities of the 1950s.”
Kirkland told of a dramatic night months before Parks arrived, two years after Brown v. Board of Education’s blow against segregated schools. On the rainy evening of March 2, Mobile Mayor Joe Langan held an inaugural City Hall assembly with 145 attendees, a group who went on to establish a biracial committee. Across town, 1,000 agitated Mobilians attended a local White Citizens’ Council chapter meeting and signed up 145 new members that night.
“They’re reported the next day, both gatherings on the front page of the Mobile newspapers, but only one of those narratives really persists. I’m going to talk a bit about why that is,” Kirkland said.
The historian employed the personal experiences of two men who came of age in that era as insightful illustrations. One was Israel Lewis, a member of the Africatown Lewis family descended from Clotilda survivors. Though Lewis was born in the Black Belt’s rural Hale County, his parents returned to the Mobile area when he was 12 years old.
His White counterpart, David Alsobrook, was younger by a handful of years but was still struck by what the times showed. Like when a Black employee at Brookley Field moved his family into a previously all-White, working-class neighborhood.
“David vividly remembered going and watching the burned cross on their lawn being taken down,” Kirkland said.
Parks’ artful photos accompanied an article entitled “Open and Hidden.”
“In Mobile, there’s an open version of some of these events and there’s a more hidden, obscured version,” Kirkland said.
The Parks exhibition closes Dec. 30.
RSVPs to Kirkland’s assembly are highly encouraged. Those with COVID-19 concerns may attend via Zoom. To reach the stream or RSVP, go to mobilemuseumofart.com.
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