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)

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.

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