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Our Department of Curatorial Affairs focuses on scholarship, preservation, and collections to tell the African American story in our 12 inaugural exhibitions.

The team preserves, documents, interprets, and makes accessible the collections and scholarship of the Museum in support of the Museum's mission and in accord with standards of quality and practice that maintain the Museum's leadership in the field. The office provides vision for the Museum's collections, research, and exhibition development activities; coordinates and integrates public programs, and aids all of curatorial affairs in prioritizing projects and program activities.

Rex Ellis, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs

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Washington Post photo

Jacquelyn Serwer, Head Curator

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Washington Post photo

Concourse Level

A Century in the Making: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture 

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will open on the National Mall Sept. 24, but the effort to build the museum began more than 100 years ago. This exhibit, “A Century in the Making,” explores the journey toward fulfillment of this long-held dream, providing an overview of the century-long struggle that began in 1915 and its culminating achievements. Opening the museum has involved the efforts of presidents and members of Congress, curators and architects, art collectors and army veterans, celebrities and ordinary citizens. Visitors will learn the inspiration behind the museum’s architectural building design and the significance of the museum’s unique location on the National Mall, at the center of Washington’s historic core. 

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Curators: Joanne Hyppolite and Michelle Wilkinson (pictured in a Washington Post photo)

History Galleries (concourses 1, 2 and 3)

Slavery and Freedom

As the centerpiece of the museum, this exhibition explores the complex story of slavery and freedom, a story standing at the core of our national experience. Beginning in the 15th century with the transatlantic slave trade, through the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the exhibition uses personal stories to explore the economic and political legacies of slavery for all Americans. Priceless objects featured include Harriett Tubman’s shawl and hymn book (c. 1876); Nat Turner’s bible (1830s); shackles used for an enslaved child; a slave cabin from Edisto Island, S.C.; a pocket copy of the Emancipation Proclamation read from by soldiers bringing news of freedom to the U.S. Colored Troops; and freedom papers (c. 1852) carried by a former slave, Joseph Trammell. 

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Curator: Mary Elliott, Washington Post photo

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876–1968

This exhibition takes visitors from the end of Reconstruction through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is rich with history and artifacts that capture the major aspects of the ongoing struggle by the nation in general and African Americans in particular to define and make real the meaning of freedom. The exhibition will illustrate how African Americans not only survived the challenges set before them but crafted an important role for themselves in the nation, and how the nation was changed as a consequence of these struggles. Some of the most powerful artifacts in the museum are located here: Emmett Till’s casket; a dress made by Rosa Parks; a prison tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola; a segregated Southern Railway rail car from the Jim Crow era; the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s lunch-counter stools; and a house (c. 1874) built, owned and lived in by freed slaves in Maryland. 

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Curator: Spencer Crew, Washington Post photo

A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond

This section illustrates the impact of African Americans on life in the United States—social, economic, political and cultural—from the death of Martin Luther King Jr. to the second election of President Barack Obama. Subjects include the Black Arts Movement, hip-hop, the Black Panthers, the rise of the black middle class and, more recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This exhibition encompasses several sections focusing on Black Power era of the 1960s and ’70s, Black Studies at universities, racial dynamics in cities and suburbs and the changing role of the black middle class. The year 1968 is seen as a turning point in the modern struggle for freedom and equality with artifacts such as painted plywood panels from Resurrection City, a “Huey Newton, Minister of Defense” poster and handmade banners from the 2008 presidential election. 

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Curators: William Pretzer (pictured in a Washington Post photo) and Michelle Wilkinson

Community Galleries (third floor)

Power of Place

This exhibition explores the idea of place and region as a crucial component of the African American experience through an interactive multimedia area called the Hometown Hub, where visitors will engage with stories about migration and other themes. Surrounding the hub will be 10 case studies of places in the U.S. illustrating the distinct flavor and experience of each. These place studies will contain a mix of diverse stories—well known and unknown; mainstream and edgy; celebratory and challenging. These include: Chicago (black urban life and home of the Chicago Defender newspaper; Oak Bluffs (leisure in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.); Tulsa, Okla. (Black Wall Street, the story of the riot and rebirth); South Carolina’s low country (a story of life in the rice fields); Greenville, Miss. (images of segregated Mississippi through the lens of a photo studio); and Bronx, N.Y. (a story about the birth of hip-hop). 

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Curator: Paul Gardullo, Washington Post photo

Making a Way Out of No Way

The stories in this gallery show the ways in which African Americans created possibilities in a world that denied them opportunities. These stories reflect the perseverance, resourcefulness and resilience required by African Americans to survive and thrive in America. Each story presents concrete actions and choices that people made to contest the racial status quo in America, challenging visitors to reconsider the notion of freedom as granted to African Americans and to see freedom, along with its privileges and responsibilities, as earned by African Americans. The three main sections are: an introductory space with five iconic artifacts complemented by multimedia components; the institutional pillars of African American life—education, religion, business, organizations and the press; and a tradition of activism. Among the featured stories will be a Rosenwald School in South Carolina, the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles and Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C. 

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Curators: Michèle Gates Moresi (pictured in aWashington Post Photo) and Kathleen Kendrick

Double Victory: The African American Military Experience

Our military gallery exhibition conveys a sense of appreciation and respect for the military service of African Americans from the American Revolution to the current war on terrorism. It establishes an understanding that the African American military experience shapes opportunities for the greater community and has profoundly shaped the nation. This exhibition will help visitors understand the African American military experience in three areas: “Struggle for Freedom” focusing on the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War; “Segregated Military,” about the Indian Wars, Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II; and “Stirrings of Change to a Colorblind Military,” examining the Korean and Vietnam wars and today’s war on terrorism. 

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Guest Curator: Krewasky Salter, Washington Post photo

Culture Galleries (fourth floor)

Musical Crossroads

This exhibition tells the story of African American music from the arrival of the first Africans to today’s hip-hop. Through its content, the exhibition will be the space where history and culture intermingle and where music serves as the crossroads between musical traditions and stories of cultural and social development. The gallery is organized through stories of musical genres and themes rather than chronologically, covering classical, sacred, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop and more.

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Curator: Dwandalyn Reece, Washington Post photo

Cultural Expressions

This exhibition is an introduction to the concept of African American and African diaspora culture. It examines style (identity, political expression and attitudes expressed in clothing, dress, hair and jewelry), food and foodways, artistry and creativity through craftsmanship, social dance and gesture, and language. 

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Curator: Joanne Hyppolite, Washington Post photo

Visual Art and the American Experience

This art exhibition illustrates the critical role that African American artists played in shaping the history of American art. It will feature seven thematic sections and one changing exhibition gallery. Works will include paintings, sculpture, works on paper, art installations, mixed media, photography and digital media. The history and relevance of each work will be available to visitors through a multimedia platform. 

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Curators: Tuliza Fleming (pictured in a Washington Post photo) and Jacquelyn Serwer

Taking the Stage

This exhibition explores the history of African Americans in theater, film and television in order to celebrate their creative achievements, demonstrate their cultural impact and illuminate their struggles for equal representation on the stage of American entertainment. Visitors will see how African Americans transformed the ways they are represented onstage by challenging racial discrimination and stereotypes and striving to produce more positive, authentic and diverse images of African American identity and experience. Together these stories will suggest how African American performing artists also paved the way for broader social change. Stories include Paul Robeson’s role in Othello, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enufand the Black Stuntmen’s Association in Hollywood. 

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Curator: Kathleen Kendrick, Washington Post photo

Sports: Leveling the Playing Field

This exhibition explores the contributions of athletes, both on and off the field. Some athletes have been symbolic figures of black ability, while others have taken their activism beyond the court to the courtroom, boardroom, and the newsroom. Because sports were among the first, and most high profile spaces to accept African Americans on relative terms of equality, sport has had a unique role within American culture. Within black communities, sports have always been political. From the refusal to allow African Americans an opportunity to compete to the formation of African American segregated sporting teams and leagues; from the hard won battles to compete at the highest levels of the game to the introduction of African American expressive cultural practices within the games, the African American presence in sports has had social and political consequences.

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Curator: Damion Thomas, Washington Post photo

Special Exhibitions 

City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign 

This exhibition commemorates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final human rights crusade in a new exhibition on the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a multicultural coalition that began in 1968 to end poverty. The exhibition, “City of Hope: Resurrection City & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” features rare archival film and new oral histories with people who helped organize the campaign including Marian Wright Edelman and Andrew Young.

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Curator: Aaron Bryant, Washington Post photo

Represent: Hip-Hop Photography

Currently on display on the second floor in the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA) gallery. Inspired by the four elements of hip-hop - DJ’s, MCs, breakdancers and graffiti – “Represent”  showcases photographs from the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection that illustrate the early days of hip-hop and its rapid expansion to a cultural phenomenon in the mid-to-late 1990s. Photos showing some of hip-hop’s iconic figures and moments are paired alongside other images from the museum’s photography collection to explore how different social movements, historic figures, art, culture and dance have influenced the musical genre. For example, artist Queen Latifah’s photograph is paired with an image of 1920s blues entertainer Gladys Bentley. The paring, or diptych, illuminates similarities between the two entertainers who often dealt with media speculation on their appearances.

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Curator: Rhea L. Combs, Washington Post photo

A Look at the Black Fashion Museum Collection and Designer Peter Davy

The museum’s newly curated online exhibition gives fashion and black history enthusiasts an introduction to highlights from the Black Fashion Museum, which was founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane. The entire collection contains nearly 2,000 objects that are currently being cataloged for future display and access by fashion scholars and researchers. In addition, the online exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to learn more about Alexander-Lane and enjoy more than 50 stunning gowns created by Afro-Caribbean designer Peter Davy. 

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Curator: Elaine Nichols, Washington Post photo

Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture

The exhibition will use the story of Winfrey and her 25-year daytime talk show as a lens to explore contemporary American history and culture, especially issues of power, gender and the media. It will feature video clips on a range of subjects, interactive interviews with Winfrey, costumes from her films Beloved and The Color Purple and artifacts from Harpo Studios in Chicago, home of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Curators: Rhea Combs and Kathleen Kendrick