THE SMITHSONIAN’S BLACK MUSEUM has a new leader. Kevin Young has been named director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.

Young is currently director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. He also serves as poetry editor at The New Yorker. He officially begins at the Smithsonian Jan. 11, 2021.

“I look forward to directing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in this next phase of leadership, after its founding, opening and dynamic exhibitions and events,” Young said in a statement.

“Having visited the museum myself with my family, I know what a powerful place it is, transforming visitors both in-person and online, and revealing the centrality of African American culture to the American experience. I am eager to engage further directions in the museum’s mission, embracing our digital present and future while furthering conversations around Black history, art, liberation and joy.”

The announcement comes nearly a year and a half after the departure of founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III. Young is succeeding Bunch who was appointed secretary of the entire Smithsonian Institution in May 2019. Since Bunch was elevated, Spencer Crew, a professor of history at George Mason University and former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, has been serving as interim director of NMAAHC.

A POET, EDITOR, AND ESSAYIST, Young has authored 11 books of poetry, two nonfiction volumes and is the editor of 10 additional works including a new book “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song” which is forthcoming in October. Most recently, he published “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News,” “Brown: Poems,” and “Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015.” He also co-edited “The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010.”

Young has served as director of the Schomburg Center, a research division of the New York Public Library, since 2016. Established in 1925 on 135th Street in Harlem, the Schomburg was originally known as the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints. Named a National Historic Landmark in 2017, the center’s expansive holdings include collections of rare books and archives, art and artifacts, and photography and recordings.

The storied Harlem institution is a nexus of Black history and culture that has served as an invaluable resource for writers, artists, scholars, and the community at-large for generations. Artist Jacob Lawrence conducted research for his multi-panel narratives at the Schomburg, including his celebrated Migration series and Struggle series. (“Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

In the central lobby of the Schomburg, the cremated remains of Langston Hughes are buried beneath “Rivers,” a cosmogram floor installation by artist Houston Conwill that serves as a memorial to Hughes and Arturo Schomburg, the historian and bibliophile for whom the library is named.

“Having visited the [Smithsonian] museum myself with my family, I know what a powerful place it is, transforming visitors both in-person and online, and revealing the centrality of African American culture to the American experience.” — Kevin Young

During Young’s tenure, the Schomburg has acquired a number of major collections, including the archives of James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Braithwaite). The institution also purchased the 241-page manuscript of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” with a previously unpublished chapter.

Under his leadership, the Schomburg’s coffers have grown by $10 million in grants and donations and attendance increased 40 percent. He has also enhanced public programming at the Schomburg, which is known for its lectures, panel discussions, and popular Black Comic Book Festival. He developed new initiatives and events, including Home to Harlem, showcasing materials and collections related to cultural figures with deep connections to Harlem, and Lift Every Voice, a series of nationwide events celebrating 250 years of African American poetry that coincides with the publication of his poetry anthology.

In June, during its ongoing closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Schomburg created and distributed a Black Liberation Reading List, a selection of 95 recommendations (representing the institutions 95 years of existence). “In response to the uprisings across the globe demanding justice for Black lives,” the library said, “the 95 titles on the list represent books we and the public turn to regularly as activists, students, archivists, and curators, with a particular focus on books by Black authors and those whose papers we steward.”

Prior to joining the Schomburg Center, Young was a professor of creative writing and English at Emory University in Atlanta for 11 years. He was also curator of Emory’s Raymond Danowski Poetry Library and curator of Literary Collections at Emory’s Rose Library.

Young received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College (1992), held a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University (1992–1994), and earned an MFA in creative writing from Brown University (1996). He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2016), and this year was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

THE SMITHSONIAN’S SEARCH for the new director of NMAAHC began in fall 2019 with the assistance of executive search firm Spencer Stuart. Members of the search committee included Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and acting under secretary for Museums and Culture; and NMAAHC Advisory Council Members Elizabeth Alexander, Edith Cooper, retired Gen. Colin Powell, Ruth J. Simmons and H. Patrick Swygert.

Young is joining NMAAHC four years after its dedication and grand opening Sept.24, 2016. Described as “the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural center devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American experience,” the museum’s collection features more than 37,000 objects, including photography and artworks across a range of mediums. More than 7 million people have visited the museum since it opened. After temporarily closing in March due to the pandemic, NMAAHC reopened to the public two weeks ago, on Sept. 18.

“Kevin will bring an exciting mix of scholarship, technological savvy and bold vision that builds on the foundational work of the many people who built the museum,” Bunch said in a statement. “As a poet, he understands how the museum fulfilled the dreams of many Americans, and under his leadership the museum will shape the hopes of future generations.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Kevin Young. | Photo by Melanie Dunea, Courtesy Smithsonian

 

FIND MORE about Kevin Young on his website

READ MORE about his Kevin Young and his book “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News,” featured in The New York Times

 

BOOKSHELF
Kevin Young has published more than 20 books, both as author and editor, including “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” and the forthcoming volume “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.” For children, “Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library” tells the story of the man for whom the historic institution was named. “Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon” explores the life of the architect who supervised the design for the Smithsonian museum. Also consider, “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump” by Lonnie G. Bunch III, a compelling read that details how the museum was finally realized after 100 years.

 

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