The Pressure of Preserving Our Legacy

The head curator for the national African-American museum tells The Root what goes into his job.

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Another surprising item is Nat Turner's Bible. We didn't expect that to come our way, but it serendipitously did. We authenticated it, conserved it, and it is a gem. We also have Chuck Berry's Cadillac, given to us by Mr. Berry.

TR: Where are the main places you go looking for artifacts for the collection?

An airplane used to train Tuskegee Airmen, courtesy of NMAAHC

There are traditional ways also -- we look at collections from collectors around the country and around the world. But we have been very pleased by the amount of artifacts that we have found in the homes of African-American communities around the country.

TR: With regard to those more "traditional ways" of reaching out to smaller museums that have been collecting black-history treasures for decades, what has that relationship been like? Are any of them territorial about sharing with the big National Museum?

RME: We have tried our best, and I think we've been successful, at reminding ourselves, as well as museums around the country, that we stand on their shoulders. We really stand on the work that they have done and continue to do. We have respected them, and tried to collaborate with as many of them as possible. We have consistently let them know that we really depend on their wisdom, their feedback and their collaboration in order for our museum to be successful.

TR: How do you respond to people who question the need for a museum of African-American history, arguing that it could just be folded into the National Museum of American History?

RME: The necessity for an African-American museum is simply obvious, especially if it is seen as part of understanding America's tortured racial past and understanding what America should be about. We believe that discussing issues of liberty, equality, citizenship and race from a uniquely African-American lens is important and can be instructive to all Americans.

TR: How does it feel to curate the official national museum dedicated to African-American history and culture? Is it a daunting responsibility?

RME: Every day I say to myself and to my staff, "If you are not scared to death at the prospect of creating a museum that tells the story and preserves the legacy of our African-American past, you may be in the wrong place." It is an awesome responsibility that we all take with great humility and with great respect. What we do will live beyond us for generations.