A CENTURY IN THE MAKING, when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opens on Sept. 24, a major section of the fourth floor will be devoted to visual art.
Exhibitions throughout the rest of the museum will examine in depth the experiences of African Americans, stories central to the American narrative explored through the lens of history, community and culture with objects and artifacts. The art galleries—part of the cultural component—are designed to be a unique space, essentially serving as an art museum within the cultural history museum, where work by African American artists including Felrath Hines, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Kara Walker, among many others, will be presented.
“We think having a traditional art gallery will be a pleasant surprise,” says NMAAHC curator Tuliza Fleming.
Fleming spoke on a Feb. 6 panel about the forthcoming African American museum at the College Art Association (CAA) conference in Washington, D.C.
“Behind the Veil: An Inside Look at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture,” was moderated by Jacqueline Francis, an associate professor at the California College of the Arts and co-founder of the Association of Critical Race Art History, an affiliated society of CAA that sponsored the session.
The panel featured five curators from NMAAHC: Jacqueline Serwer, Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Michelle Gates Moresi, Aaron Bryant and Fleming. The curators gave a comprehensive overview of the museum, explaining its mission and programming in detail. Although the room could accommodate more than 200 people, only about 50 were in attendance. For those who did turn out, it was a revealing session.
Feb. 6, 2016: From left, NMAAHC curators Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Tuliza Fleming, Aaron Bryant, Michelle Gates Moresi, and Jacqueline Serwer, discuss the forthcoming Smithsonian museum at the College Art Association conference in Washington, D.C. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
Wilkinson, a NMAAHC curator, previously served as director of collections and exhibitions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. She co-moderated the session with Francis and discussed the design of the forthcoming African American museum.
NMAAHC is in the last stretch of construction at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street. Sited on five acres in the shadow of the Washington Monument, it occupies the last available space on the National Mall.
The architectural team is composed of four firms—The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond, and the SmithGroup. Phillip Freelon is charged with ensuring the museum design adheres to the programming vision and British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye is the lead designer.
The building is 400,000 square feet with five levels above ground and four below, specifications ensuring its profile does not rise too high and impose on the majesty of greenscape surrounding it.
The museum’s unique design is inspired by the form of the tiered corona found in Nigerian sculpture, the symbolism of uplift, and concept of the porch, which Wilkinson said is “a key element of design across different diasporic communities from West Africa, through Haiti and Louisiana.”
The museum’s unique design is inspired by the form of the tiered corona found in Nigerian sculpture, the symbolism of uplift, and concept of the porch… “a key element of design across different diasporic communities from West Africa, through Haiti and Louisiana.”
— Curator Michelle Joan Wilkinson
She said the bronze filigree panels that clad the three-tier corona that defines the museum’s exterior directly reference ornamental ironwork created by free and enslaved black craftsman from New Orleans.
In addition to exhibition galleries, the museum also features a theater, education center, shop and cafe, as well as staff offices.
Wilkinson concluded her remarks by sharing the museum’s new tagline: “A People’s Journey, a Nation’s Story.”
PROGRAMMING & COLLECTING
Moresi, supervisory curator of museum collections at NMAAHC, reviewed the museum’s goals and talked a bit about assembling the collection.
She said, “It is our job at the museum to present the history and stories of African Americans in a way that visitors can relate to and begin to understand. That is the driving philosophy set for us by the director [Lonnie Bunch], as well as our Scholarly Advisory Committee.”
The committee was initially led by the late historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), who served as founding chairman of the body. The committee continues to meet regularly and currently has 11 members, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch; Johnetta B. Cole, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art; Prof. Richard Powell of Duke University, who organized the recent exhibition “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist”; and photographer, historian and NYU professor Deborah Willis.
In addition to the committee’s insight, the museum has conducted town hall events across the nation, and meetings with scholars at universities around the country, as well as consultations with various stakeholders, engagements that have also influenced the museum’s programming.
In terms of the mission and scope of collecting, Moresi said, “In a very general sense, we need to collect significant, meaningful. and profound artifacts related to the African American experience. While this statement is broad and encompassing, it has to be because of the massive undertaking that we are charged with.”
Moresi explained that the vision for NMAAHC is based on four pillars:
- Providing an opportunity to discover, explore and revel in African American history and culture and all its nuances and complexities
- Emphasizing the centrality of the African American experience to the American story
- Telling the African American story in an international context
- Serving as a place of dialogue and engaging new audiences; collaboration with other museums and educational institutions; and reconciliation
Too large to be installed once the museum was completed, a segregation-era railway car and early 20th-century guard tower from the Angola prison in Louisiana, were lowered into the ground level of the building in the early stages of construction. | Video by NMAAHC
The museum houses 11 galleries. The history exhibitions include “Slavery and Freedom” (covering the period up to Reconstruction); “Defining Freedom, Defending Freedom” (the segregation era, from post-reconstruction through the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act); and “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” The community floor features “Double Victory” (military); “Leveling the Playing Field (sports); “Power of Place” (regionalism); and “Making a Way Out of No Way” (formal and informal institutions and organizations). There are four cultural galleries: “Musical Crossroads”; “Visual Arts Gallery”; “Cultural Expressions” (African American and African diasporic culture); and “Taking the Stage” (theater, film and television).
Thus far, the museum has assembled a collection of more than 34,000 items including monumental installations such as a slave cabin from a plantation on Edisto Island, S.C.; “Spirit of Tuskegee,” a Stearman bi-plane used to train Tuskegee Airmen; a guard shack from Anglola Prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary; a segregation-era Southern railway car; Funk legend George Clinton’s Mothership; and the contents of one of President Obama’s 2008 campaign offices in Northern Virginia.
The museum has obtained small objects, such as a 1955 AFL-CIO manufactured red, black and green button of the Pan-African flag, and a button from the Oct. 16, 1995, Million Man March that says “1 in a Million”; along with major collections including the Ernest C. Withers Photography Collection, the Eyejammie Hip-Hop Photo Collection, and the Black Fashion Museum Collection; as well as one-of-a-kind artifacts such as Nat Turner’s bible.
The exhibitions are the number one priority when it comes to the museum’s collecting plan. “We ask ourselves what are the narratives in the opening shows? What objects best convey these stories?” Moresi said. “Do we collect objects because they are interesting, noteworthy, and research rich? Or do we develop the stories we want to tell and then go find the object to tell it?” She said the curators have adopted both methods.
“As an organization whose primary strength is the authentic object, we have to present artifacts that drive home the story. At the same time we aim to reflect new scholarship to challenge visitors about American history in new ways and sometimes by giving them the unexpected story,” Moresi said.
“We have to present artifacts that drive home the story. At the same time we aim to reflect new scholarship to challenge visitors about American history in new ways and sometimes by giving them the unexpected story.”
— Curator Michelle Gates Moresi
“In other instances the artifacts are inspiring to us. We come across stories we did not know were possible that we would have those opportunities.”
As an example, she cited the unexpected acquisition of 39 artifacts belonging to Harriet Tubman including an 1876 book of gospel hymns, which she carried with her even though she did not know how to read; a framed portrait of Tubman, one of the few known to exist; a lace shawl that Tubman received as a gift from Queen Victoria; as well as photographs from her 1913 funeral.
The Tubman Collection was a gift from Charles L. Blockson, a writer, historian and former board member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, who the museum describes as having ancestors who “owed their newfound liberty to Tubman’s fearlessness.”
When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens, one of its major installations will be the “Spirit of Tuskegee,” one of the training planes used by the Tuskegee Airmen. | Video by NMAAHC
An art historian and NMAAHC’s chief curator since 2006, Serwer has had a pioneering career. She was a curator at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and then joined the Corcoran Gallery of Art where she rose to chief curator.
Serwer discussed the “major works of art destined for the public spaces in the new museum building,” including works by Romare Bearden (1911-1988), Sam Gilliam and Chakaia Booker.
One of the museum’s unique design elements is the Oculus, a circular indoor/outdoor water feature. Sited on the north landscape on the exterior, it descends below ground into the museum, a ring of water raining down on the building’s Contemplative Court on the Concourse Level. Nearby, “Recollection Pond,” a large-scale tapestry by Bearden, will be on view.
The circa 1975 tapestry is part of a series of seven, Serwer said. Examples are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at several universities. The NMAAHC tapestry is a gift from a board member.
The museum has also commissioned site-specific installations by Sam Gilliam, the Washington, D.C.-based artist recognized for his color field painting and New York artist Chakaia Booker. She works with recycled tires and is creating a major wall relief sculpture for the museum. “Anonymous Donor,” an installation by Booker is currently on view in the exhibition “Wonder” at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.
Serwer said another public art work is planned for the patio space surrounding the museum but the details are still in progress.
Fleming is working closely with Serwer on the presentation of visual art and building NMAAHC’s art collection. After serving as associate curator and department head of American art at the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio and a stint as a guest curator in advance of the opening of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, Fleming joined NMAAHC in 2007. She discussed the museum’s art collection and plans for exhibiting the art.
The collection includes works by American artists of African descent in a range of mediums, from paintings, works on paper, mixed media, and sculpture, to installations, digital media and photography.
Artists spanning the 18th (Joshua Johnson), 19th (Robert Scott Duncanson) and 20th centuries (Charles Alston, Aaron Douglas, Lois Mailou Jones, Augusta Savage, Hughie Lee-Smith) are represented in the collection, along with some of the most critically recognized contemporary artists working today (Radcliffe Bailey, David Driskell, Rashid Johnson, Whitfield Lovell, Jefferson Pinder, Joyce Scott, Renee Stout).
Works from the museum’s permanent collection will be presented in a series of seven themed galleries: New Materials, New Worlds; The Beauty of Color and Form (featuring abstract art); Religion and Spirituality; African Connections; The Politics of Identity; The Struggle for Freedom; and The World Around Us. A final gallery will feature a series of changing exhibitions.
Fleming said the gallery presentation is designed to “shift the paradigm that African American art is somehow different from other art.” The exhibition has four goals:
- Change the way people think about and refer to art created by African Americans from the phrase “African American art” to “American art”
- Demonstrate the different ways that artists respond to various themes and issues over time, region, and space
- Present American history, culture, and art history through the lens of the African American artist
- Provide a safe and engaging space where visitors can learn about art and its relevance to their lives.
The gallery presentation is designed to “shift the paradigm that African American art is somehow different from other art.”
— Curator Tuliza Fleming
When visitors enter the art gallery, there will be an introductory film and throughout the exhibition space the art works will be identified with extended wall text and two multimedia presentations will provide further information. Curators are also considering using tablet devices as another platform for giving context to the art.
The emphasis is on making sure that when visitors walk through the galleries they learn about the artists, the concepts and subjects explored, and related works. “We don’t want to say, ‘Either you get it, or you don’t,'” says Fleming.
Over the past 13 years, since concrete plans to develop the museum and its programming have been underway, NMAAHC has been acquiring historic artifacts dating back to slavery. At the same time, curators have been gathering contemporary objects that reflect current events as they unfold.
Aaron Bryant, Mellon curator of photography, was the last to speak during the session and he explained the museum’s efforts in terms of “rapid response” collecting.
“History is happening around us every day,” Bryant said, “so curators have to ask, ‘How can we collect symbols and icons of these moments?'”
“History is happening around us every day, so curators have to ask, ‘How can we collect symbols and icons of these moments?'”
— Curator Aaron Bryant
During President Obama’s 2009 and 2013 inaugurations, NMAAHC curators waded into the crowds on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building and National Mall to collect unique memorabilia commemorating the historic ceremonies. The museum was particularly interested in handmade items. They took photographs of objects that interested them. Some people donated items on the spot, many others were given donation cards and asked to followup with curators.
During the panel discussion, Bryant focused on the Black Lives Matter Movement and protests that have grown out of the spate of unarmed black men being killed by police officers across the country. He spoke in particular about activities in Baltimore where Freddie Gray Jr., 25, died in police custody, in the back of a police transport van, on April 19, 2015.
Museum officials have been present during the riots, protests and public gatherings in Baltimore, acquiring photography, video, handmade signs and large and small symbols of the historic actions.
As a result of these efforts, a number of artifacts have been brought into the collection, including video of 200 ministers standing between police and protesters the night the local CVS was destroyed by fire; a burnt out car; Rev. Jamal Bryant’s suit and shoes; photography by Devin Allen (the amateur photographer whose image of Baltimore protestors landed on the cover of Time magazine); and “New Age Slavery,” a watercolor by Patrick Campbell that depicts a vertical U.S. flag with silhouettes of hanging bodies in the stripes, among many other items
The museum has also acquired a mirrored coffin that was used during a demonstration in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown, 18, was shot dead by a police officer on Aug. 9, 2014.
In addition to its collecting efforts, on April 24, 2015, the museum hosted a series of discussions about history, rebellion, and reconciliation, examining the ways in which communities are mobilizing for change today.
ASK THE CURATORS
When the panel presentations concluded, the floor was opened up for questions. One member of the audience asked whether the museum would be collecting the tools of artists’ practices—the objects such as brushes, palettes, and other studio materials central to their production process. In response, Serwer said that was not a category of collecting currently being pursued.
Another question focused on whether NMAAHC would be collaborating with other museums in terms of art loans and curating exhibitions. Serwer confirmed that the museum works with other Smithsonian institutions and noted the rich selection of art by African American artists in the collection of the American Art Museum.
Collaborations are also expected with other institutions, including museums at Historically Black Colleges and Universities which were collecting work by African American artists generations before major art museum began to make acquisitions.
Such a collaboration occurred last year when NMAAHC hosted, at its temporary gallery space at the National Museum of American History, “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,” the traveling exhibition organized by the High Museum in Atlanta with Talladega.
Currently, NMAAHC is presenting a photography exhibition, “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” at the National Museum of American History.
After the program, I asked Fleming about the size of the museum’s art collection. She said NMAAHC has acquired approximately 150 works and has processed about 90 of them. (By comparison, the museum’s entire collection is composed of about 34,000 objects.)
The majority of the art collection is based on donations to the museum, including a selection of works from the Barnett-Aden Collection by Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), Frederick Flemister (1917-1976), Archibald Motley Jr. (1891-1981), and Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937), a gift from Robert L. Johnson, a founding member of the museum’s advisory board and founder of RLJ Companies and Black Entertainment Television (BET).
We have received “an extraordinary amount of wonderful gifts,” Fleming said.
The museum has the capacity—albeit limited—to purchase art. Tuliza said the NMAAHC general acquisition budget, which must be spent among all of the museum’s collecting departments, is $1.2 million annually.
National Museum of African American History and Culture Building Fly-Through: Experience what it will be like to visit the museum. | Video by NMAAHC
The genesis for NMAAHC was a 1915 proposal by black Civil War veterans for a national monument to African American achievement. The concept languished for decades before gaining any significant momentum. A mandate for the museum was finally established by Congressional legislation on Dec. 18, 2003.
A few days before the CAA session with curators, NMAAHC announced that after postponing its 2015 debut, the museum will finally open its doors on Sept. 24, 2016.
The weeklong celebration is slated to kick off with a dedication ceremony and ribbon-cutting with President Obama. The schedule includes extended visiting hours; a three-day festival of music, literature, dance and film; and events co-hosted by museums in the United States and Africa.
“In a few short months visitors will walk through the doors of the museum and see that it is a place for all people. We are prepared to offer exhibitions and programs to unite and capture the attention of millions of people worldwide,” said Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, when the opening date was announced.
“It will be a place for healing and reconciliation, a place where everyone can explore the story of America through the lens of the African American experience.” CT
TOP IMAGE: DAVID ADJAYE, Rendering of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. | Photo Adjaye Associates
NMAAHC has published a series of books highlighting works from its photography collection including “Through the African American Lens: Double Exposure,” “African American Women (Double Exposure),” “Civil Rights and the Promise of Equality (Double Exposure),” and “Picturing Children (Double Exposure).” In September, when the museum opens, a souvenir book and a volume celebrating the architectural design of the Smithsonian building will be published.