This is an extract from Lonnie Bunch's book: A Fool's Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump. Join our Book Club to discuss:
I have a curatorial ritual that I have followed since I was a young curator at the California African American Museum in the 1980s. Whenever I create an exhibition I spend time walking through the gallery just prior to its opening to the public. This is my time to say goodbye, to reflect on the work and the collaborations that made the show possible. Once the public enters an exhibition it is no longer mine.
The impact, the interpretive resonance, and the clever (or so I hoped) visual juxtapositions are now for the public to discover. So, on September 16, 2016, the last day before a series of pre-opening receptions that would shatter the silence of creation, I walked through all 81,700 square feet of the inaugural exhibitions of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), saying my farewells and marveling at what we had created. I reveled in the 496 cases needed to house the collections, the 160 media presentations, the 3,500 photographs and images that peopled the galleries, the 3,000 artifacts winnowed down from 10,000 objects that were considered for exhibition, the 15 cast figures whose likenesses were eerily accurate, and the special typeface created for the museum by Joshua Darden, an African-American typeface designer.
I cried again as I was confronted by the exhibition that displayed the more than 600 names of the enslaved whose lives were forever changed by the separation of families and friends during the domestic slave trade that reached its apex during the 40 years prior to the start of the Civil War in 1861. And my sadness turned to anger as I read the names, once again, of the ships that transported so many Africans to a strange new world. But more than anything else, I simply said goodbye.
The creativity and effort needed to get to that day had been herculean. It had taken an army of designers, researchers, curators, educators, project managers and me. It was unusual for a director to take such an active role in helping to shape every presentation. I decided to put my fingerprints on every product, every publication, and every exhibition because I remembered something an exhibition designer had said to me during my tenure in Chicago. There was a desire to transform the Chicago Historical Society so it could be rebranded as a museum rather than a historical society. I hired a designer whose work had profoundly shaped my first major exhibition in Los Angeles, “The Black Olympians,” someone whose judgment I trusted. It had been a curatorial-driven effort and I set the tone but stayed out of the scholarly and content decisions. Several months into the design process the contractor came into my office and chastised me. He wanted to know why I was not helping my staff. “You are considered one of the strongest curators around but you are not sharing your knowledge and experience with your staff.”
His words stayed with me as we began to develop this museum’s exhibition agenda. I had years of curatorial experience and a keen sense of what makes engaging and essential exhibitions, which I vowed to share with my colleagues at NMAAHC. More importantly, I had a clear vision of what the exhibitions should explore, how they should educate and involve the visitors, and in what ways these presentations could bring a contemporary resonance to historical events.
I have often been asked if there was another museum that was a model for our efforts. There was no single museum that I could point to as one to emulate. There were, however, bits of exhibitions that informed my thinking. I had never forgotten the evocative and powerful way Spencer Crew’s work in his exhibit "Field to Factory" captured the small details of African-American migration, such as the child on the train with a basket of food that reminded the visitors that travel for African-Americans in the segregated South was fundamentally different from the same experience for white Americans. Or the manner in which the Holocaust Memorial Museum boldly embraced the challenge of exhibiting painful moments, such as a case full of shorn hair or the railcar that transported people to the death camps. I always think about the strangely titled museum in Beijing, the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War Resistance Museum, which had a contemplative space that encompassed hundreds of bells, as if each bell tolled for someone lost during the invasion of China. I learned much from Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, a cultural institution that used a few artifacts in a theatrical setting that spoke not of history, but of how people remembered that past and the ways those memories shaped national identity. And my own work in Los Angeles on the Olympics used cultural complexity and social history as ways to understand how the Olympics transcended sport. I also recalled how the exhibition curated by Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, “Bridges and Boundaries: African-Americans and American Jews” that was mounted at the New York Historical Society, embraced the challenge of interpreting the recent past such as the violent confrontations between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, New York City.
I needed the exhibitions at NMAAHC to build upon the earlier creative work of other museums but not be held captive by prior curatorial efforts. My vision for the museum’s presentations was shaped both by philosophical concerns and the realities of being part of the wonderfully complex and imaginative Smithsonian Institution.
After reviewing the mountain of material contained in the audience surveys taken as part of the prebuilding planning, it was clear that the public had a limited understanding of the arc of African-American history. I felt that a portion of the exhibitions needed to provide a curated historical narrative. We found it necessary to provide frameworks that would help the visitor navigate the complexity of this history and also create opportunities for the audience to find familiar stories and events that made the museum more accessible, something that was reinforced by some of the criticism directed at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Visitors at NMAI had been confused by the lack of a visible narrative that served to deconstruct and make the history of Native-Americans more comprehensible. I understood the scholarly reticence to craft an overarching framework narrative because that reduces the complexity of the past and privileges some experiences over others. In a museum, however, the audience searches for the clarity that comes from a narrative that offers guidance and understanding.
I hoped that the exhibitions would also be cognizant of the tension between tradition and innovation. While I believed that the exhibits needed to be shaped by rich and interesting collections, I also understood that developing a museum in the 21st century meant that technology would cast a larger shadow than it had earlier in my career. Even though the collections would be a key element, we needed to embrace technology as a means to enrich the artifact presentations, provide opportunities to delve more deeply into the history we presented, and to provide ways for younger audiences to access the past through contemporary portals. The stories we explored should be comprehensive, with breadth and depth worthy of both a national museum and the history of black America: exhibits that placed issues of gender and spirituality at the heart of our exhibitions. I also challenged the staff to remember that the African-American community, that America, deserved our best efforts. To use a phrase from my college days, there would be “no half-stepping allowed.” Every aspect of the exhibitions had to reflect a commitment to excellence.
The exhibitions within NMAAHC presented a framework that sought to re-center African-American history and issues of race in the public’s understanding of America’s past. Usually Americans have traditionally viewed questions of race as ancillary episodes, interesting but often exotic eddies outside the mainstream of the American experience. Thus, it was important for the museum to demonstrate through its interpretive frameworks that issues of race shaped all aspects of American life: from political discourse to foreign affairs to western expansion to cultural production. And using both the scholarship that undergirded the exhibitions and the imprimatur of the Smithsonian, the museum could stimulate national conversations about the historical and contemporary challenges of race. Americans are sometimes obsessed with racial concerns, but the conversations tend to remain within their own communities. We hoped that NMAAHC could generate discussions across racial and generational lines that were meaningful, complex and candid.
The exhibitions that the museum hoped to create would use extensive storytelling to humanize history, to people the past in order to make the recounting of history more accessible and more relatable.
By personalizing history, we wanted the visitor not to explore slavery, for example, as an abstract entity but to experience it as a way to learn to care about the lives of those enslaved, those who had hopes, shared laughter and raised families.
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