The Pressure of Preserving Our Legacy

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

Phyllis Wheatley sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett; Nat Turner's Bible (Smithsonian)

A powder horn carried into battle by the black soldier Prince Simbo during the American Revolution. Harriet Tubman's silk shawl -- a gift from Queen Victoria. A Stearman PT-13D plane used to train Tuskegee Airmen. A photographic portrait of Elizabeth Catlett, the renowned sculptor and printmaker. The black fedora from Michael Jackson's Victory tour. These are but a few of the more than 10,000 artifacts in the National Museum of African American History and Culture's collection.

On Feb. 22, nine years after the Smithsonian Institution museum was established by an act of Congress, a shovel will finally break ground on its five-acre construction site. President Obama is scheduled to deliver remarks, and actress Phylicia Rashad will emcee the ceremony for what will be the only national museum building dedicated exclusively to African-American life, art, history and culture. (UPDATE: See a video of the groundbreaking ceremony here.) Years of meticulous work have already gone into collecting the historic treasures that will be housed in the museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015, adjacent to the Washington Monument on the National Mall.

At the helm of that work is Rex M. Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs. Formerly the vice president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's historic area in Virginia, Ellis develops and manages all of the museum's curatorial programs as his office collects, preserves and interprets historical objects from across the Diaspora.

The Root caught up with the man of many hats and asked him about some of the most surprising artifacts in the collection, how his staff hunts for historical treasures and why he's "scared to death" about the monumental responsibility he holds at work every day.

The Root: How do you go about deciding which experiences to cover and how to present them?

Michael Jackson's fedora, courtesy of NMAAHC

Rex M. Ellis: The first thing we do is realize that the only thing we can be is comprehensive, rather than encyclopedic. The process must involve a great deal of discussion with scholars, educators, museum professionals and the general public to get some sense of the expectations and what primary stories we should be telling. We also have a scholarly advisory committee that meets with us four times a year, made up of experts in a variety of fields -- history, culture and art.

Within history, for instance, a major focus is on slavery. The prominence of slavery is the unresolved issue in American history, and certainly a huge part of African-American history. Large topics like segregation, civil rights and military history would also be under a historical rubric. With our cultural rubric, we plan to do exhibitions that relate to music, performing arts, sports, business, science and medicine, as well as education. And the visual arts, in a variety of ways, will also be a part of what we show to the public.

TR: What are some of the most surprising artifacts that you've acquired?

RME: One thing that is very important, but we certainly didn't expect, was the acquisition of Emmett Till's casket. After Till's body was exhumed [in 2005 as part of a new investigation into his death], the casket was stored in the Burr Oak Cemetery outside of Chicago. By law, you can't put remains back in the same casket, so the original casket was inappropriately put in an unprotected place that was exposed to the weather, and not being taken care of at all. The family contacted our director and asked that something be done. We were happy to put the casket in our collection and ensure that it was protected and respected in the way that it needed to be.