Tag Archives: museums

Author Interview: Nancy Bercaw

To coincide with our March 2017 special issue on Reconstruction, we interviewed Nancy Bercaw, curator of the Slavery and Freedom exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Dr. Bercaw contributed to our roundtable discussion on how Reconstruction is represented in public history contexts. In this interview she discusses the challenges, surprises, and pitfalls she encountered while preparing these exhibits, and she also provides some timely advice for those interested in pursuing museum studies.


What were some of the challenges of telling the story of Reconstruction at the Museum of African American History and Culture? How did curators address those challenges?

Perhaps the greatest challenge we faced was how to maintain the complexity of the Reconstruction era without overwhelming the visitor. From teaching, I knew that students get lost in the twists and turns of Reconstruction and drown in legal acts and proclamations. The result is that they can’t see the forest for the trees. We addressed this by using physical space to our advantage. We set the legislative acts on a wall that literally faces another wall that explores the variety of African American expressions of freedom. Then we were careful to make sure each wall referred to the other. The ungodly violence was more difficult to convey. So we made a media piece filled with voices and images from the period to give force and movement to the period.

Do you have any sense of how visitors react to the parts of the exhibits that deal with emancipation, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow? What questions do they have? What surprises them?

Perhaps the biggest surprise for many visitors is that emancipation was the result of African American thought and action. People are used to the Lincoln story or the fact that “the nation” waged a war against slavery. They see this as inevitable. So when they see the story through the African American lens they understand that the demise of slavery was far from inevitable, far from complete, and that it took thought, action, and political ingenuity. They are also taken aback that African American men held elected office after the Civil War and that so many homes, businesses, and institutions were built in this period. Jim Crow is less of a surprise.

In light of new developments like the museum, the new Reconstruction Era National Monument, and public commemorations of the Memphis Massacre, do you think it’s increasingly possible to talk about Reconstruction in public life today?

I certainly hope so. I certainly see it referred to more on social media and in the press. That being said, we have a long way to go. I think most Americans have no idea what Reconstruction was. We hope to use social media and our website to provide a public forum for debates that are largely confined to academic discussion and social activism.

Many people have drawn connections between Reconstruction and our current moment. What do you personally think is the best, most historically honest way to make those connections and tell that story? What are the stakes when we do so, and what are the potential pitfalls?

I think the pitfalls lie in telling any story that makes history seem cyclical, inevitable, or unchanging. This shapes the way I make connections between past and present. I have really appreciated using the concept of afterlives—a sedimentary vision of history—to display past and present. We can do this in a three-dimensional medium through juxtaposition and repetition. For example, when you enter our history galleries you can see down three levels with the Edisto Island slave house on the first floor and the Jim Crow railcar and the Angola prison guard tower on the second floor. You can see the passage of time but you can also see (quite literally) the past in the present.

You moved from being a history professor to being a museum curator. What are some of the biggest differences between the two jobs? How is writing history different from producing it in a museum?

What I have found so delightful and satisfying is how the two careers really work well together. At the University of Mississippi, I was responsible for teaching survey classes that were often quite large. Lectures, therefore, were inevitable. It turns out that this is quite valuable experience for putting together a museum exhibition. For one thing, you are always concerned about your audience. How can you invite them into a topic? How can you make it useful, engaging, and relevant? How can you leave spaces for them to put together the material themselves and own it? Finally, I really enjoyed surveys because you take a large and complex topic and break it down in such a way that it remains complex, but knowable. Exhibitions work the same way. You are faced with a vast array of material and stories (such as U.S. History to 1865). Then you consider your overarching goal. After you gain clarity on that, you construct “units” (or in the case of an exhibition “sections”) that deepen and challenge that thesis. You provide tools for your audience to make sense of and test your assumptions.

What kinds of work experience did you have, prior to going to the museum, that made it possible for you to get a position as a curator? What advice would you give to graduate students in history and other people interested in making a similar transition? 

My experience is very dated in many ways. There was no pathway into the museum field in the 1980s. In college, I kind of felt my way through it and studied history, art history, and literature. I kept looking for history with a life in it. Today that would be in a studies program but they really weren’t developed much in my day. So I became a history major. When I told my advisor that I wanted to work in museums, he was disappointed with me. I am not sure he took me seriously after that. But I was pretty determined so I found my own way. When I graduated from college I lived at home, worked, and saved money and then applied for an internship at the Smithsonian. Against all odds, that turned into a temporary job where I worked on the Inventory Team, then as a museum technician, and finally as a research assistant for Gary Kulik, the Chair of History and Culture. Over those three years, I got pretty restless because I wanted to be more creative and do history. But only curators could do that. And to be a curator, I was told, you had to have a PhD. So I applied to the Department of American Civilization at Penn which had a strong program for material culture and Southern history, and remarkable scholars in African American Studies. After being credentialed in this way, I again felt the pressure to conform and became a professor rather than a curator. It turns out this was great experience. I taught at Rhodes College and at the University of Mississippi, got tenure and all that and then got restless again. I was working on a book about museums and the reconstruction of race when a job came open at the Smithsonian. I jumped at the opportunity. I think my restlessness paid off in the end. Every deviation from the straight path gave me experience I could build on later.

As far as advice to others? Make sure to study material culture and think about it seriously as a form of evidence. A PhD is helpful but not always necessary. Teaching, either formally or informally, is critical. Don’t take “no” for an answer and slough off disrespect. Jobs and job descriptions may define you and define your value, but life’s too short to let that stop you.


We really appreciate Dr. Bercaw’s willingness to chat with us. If you have questions for her, please leave them in the comments! To learn more about the future of Reconstruction studies, please check out our online forum and the rest of our March 2017 issue, available on Project Muse.

Are There New Lives for Old Objects at the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

The doors are open at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC.) Perhaps you are among the hundreds who have already made the trek to the Mall’s newest venue to marvel at the architecture, wander the exhibitions, and reflect on how African American history is American history. Or maybe you are, like me, hoping to squeeze in a trip to Washington in the coming months and nab a same-day ticket to view first hand the remarkable range of artifacts installed at the NMAAHC.

If you’re like me, though you’re far away, you’ve already had your first glimpse of the Museum’s exhibitions. There has been extensive coverage, in feature articles like that from Michele Norris in National Geographic and live commentary from Mark Lamont Hill, Treva Lindsey, and Yohuru Williams on BET to countless news pieces. Friends have eagerly, and with great feeling, shared snapshots, selfies, and immediate impressions via social media. My friend, Tulane University historian Emily Clark, invited her Facebook followers to accompany her to opening ceremonies and a walk through the galleries. I gladly went along for the ride.

One object on Emily’s time line caught my attention. It was an academic robe. But of course not just any robe. Emily circulated an image of the robe worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole (today Director of the National Museum of African Art) during her 2002 inauguration as President of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Made of silky royal blue fabric and decorated with gold paint and stitching along with cowrie shells, Cole’s robe introduces the story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into the Museum’s broader interpretation of African American culture.

jones1
Academic robe worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole at Bennett College.Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Johnnetta Betsch Cole.

This is a story of no small interest to me. During the very weekend that the NMAAHC opened to the public, I was visiting Bennett College. As one of only two black women’s colleges still operating, Bennett was celebrating its 90th year with a Founder’s Day weekend and I was the featured speaker. I knew the school’s story well. Its beginnings were, as is the case for so many HBCUs, in the immediate post-Civil War period as former slaves, under humble circumstances, made education a key feature of freedom. Bennett, originally founded in 1873 in a church basement, was reorganized as a women’s liberal arts college in 1926. When Johnnetta Cole took the helm in 2002, she was the 6th President of the women’s college. And because she had previously served as President of Atlanta’s Spelman College, Dr. Cole is remembered for having woven together the histories of these two women’s HBCUs for all time. The robe’s place at the NMAAHC preserves and passes along that story.

How did the Museum more generally regard the history of HBCUs, I wondered. What sorts of origins stories might it tell of such places, created out of the tumult of Civil War and the promise of Reconstruction? Today so many such institutions, including Bennett—though venerable and beloved—face hard times wrought of aged infrastructures, slim endowments, and competition from predominantly white institutions eager to attract talented African American students. Can the NMAAHC speak to this present as well as to the past of historically black colleges and universities?

I need not, it turns out, wait for a future visit to Washington before answering this question. The curious can pay a virtual visit anytime because the Museum has made its collections – small and somewhat idiosyncratic – available via a website: https://nmaahc.si.edu/. Click on Collections and peek beyond the exhibition halls into the archives and storage spaces of the Museum to glimpse and even re-imagine the stories that its documents, artifacts, and ephemera might tell.

The past of HBCUs are there. A first-edition of J.B.T. Marsh’s The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs published in 1883 points to origins in the labor and talent of young people. Pages from a National Association of Colored Women’s meeting program link educator and founder of today’s Bethune-Cookman University, Mary McLeod Bethune, to the history of voting rights activism. A portrait of Charles S. Johnson, the first black president of Nashville’s Fisk University, invokes the legacy of intellectuals who were also institution builders. A gold pendant that marked an Alpha Kappa Alpha member’s diamond anniversary links fraternities and sororities to life-long commitments to community and service. A series of Hale Woodruff woodblock prints elegantly depicts the buildings of the Atlanta University Center, underscoring the architectural and artistic legacies of HBCUs. The earliest years of Howard University and its celebrated Yard come to us by way of a stereographic postcard of the campus.

As I scrolled through these objects, vividly reproduced in high resolutions images, a discomfort crept in. Was I seeing only the past? Michel de Certeau’s notion of the beauty of the dead came to mind. Certeau explained how when an object no longer possesses a functional value, it may find a second life in the museum. That life might be aesthetic, one of beauty, sentiment, evocation and memory. But it is also a life that is past–in Certeau’s terms, dead. On my computer screen–two dimensional, floating on a white screen, changing in size at a mere click–once living artifacts appeared as mere relics, signs of a history and culture lost to the present.

Is this the purpose of the Museum – curating the dead – or might there be more? Once again, my friends on social media showed the way. Along with sights, they began to recount sounds. Sometimes it was their own voices expressing astonishment and pleasure at how the Museum’s artifacts stirred memories and imaginings of the past. Dr. Cole’s inauguration robe took them back to other moments – their own graduations, or that of a child. Certeau’s caution is well placed here, helping us see how when set in cases, illuminated by high tech bulbs, and introduced with labels, once living objects–books read by lamp light, broaches pinned to a lapel, conference programs resting on laps, and the Howard Yard teeming with students moving to and fro–might be rendered beautiful, but dead.

But then my friends began reporting other sounds, those of storytellers: mother to daughter, grandfather to grandchild, teacher to student, and friend to friend. In those stories, the past was no longer past. Instead it was usable, illuminating, and pointing a way forward. Dr. Cole’s robe, in this sense, is ushering in a new generation of students to today’s Bennett College and the HBCU world of which it is a part. The same artifacts that had appeared beautiful but dead on my screen came alive in their new encounters with Museum patrons. Their stories gave such artifacts new meaning and purpose in the present, directing new generations of young people toward our venerable and beloved HBCUs.

Visit the NMAAHC web site. But hurry to Washington where its beautifully dead artifacts are being revived through encounters with living patrons like us. And then take a young person on a stroll across the Howard Yard.

Martha Jones

Martha S. Jones is Presidential Bicentennial Professor at the University of Michigan where she teaching history, Afroamerican and African studies, and law. She is author of the forthcoming "Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum American" from Cambridge University Press. Follow her at @marthasjones_.