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.

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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_.

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