The head curator for the national African-American museum tells The Root what goes into his job.
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.
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
RME: What we have tried to do is look to the repositories of families. We talk to African Americans to see if there are artifacts that are in attics, closets and places of storage that are still a part of the African-American community. We have been very blessed to have found a great number of items that way.
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.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
Shackles for an enslaved child, courtesy of NMAAHC