When NMAAHC was chartered in 2003, it held not a single artifact in its collections nor a single photograph in its archives. African American history, largely denied by public institutions—including the Smithsonian itself—is a foundational component of the nation's story. To build the museum's ground-laying collections, curators resolved to create a mandate that could not only provide evidence of the centrality of the Black narrative in America, but could also powerfully demonstrate the complex themes of violence and persecution, as well as the humanity, creativity, resistance, love, joy and resilience demonstrated by African Americans in the face of, and beyond the boundaries, of oppression.
For many of us, working on the team assembling the stories that this new museum would tell, the work represented an opportunity to meet the challenge of telling a more complete, more truthful American story. James Baldwin eloquently captured the charge when he wrote: “American History is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
That charge has led us to embrace an expansive and transformative new vision of collecting and collections care that has forced us to rethink basic questions of museum work—provenance, curation, cataloguing, preservation and interpretation. It has also forged a reshaping of relationships with communities and individuals who entrusted us with their histories and keepsakes, small and large. For me, the epitome of that vision is nowhere better illustrated than in the museum’s work filling the silences in our nation’s memory by working with families, institutions and communities for six years collecting around the Tulsa Massacre, and most importantly by centering the testimonies of survivors and descendants like George Monroe, Anita Williams Christopher, William D. Williams, Buck Colbert (B.C.) Franklin, Olivia Hooker and dozens of others.
The museum’s Tulsa and Black Oklahoma collection now includes more than a dozen artifacts, approximately 425 photographs and some 93 archival and ephemeral documents, along with 13 films. Each represents a profound demonstration of the immense trust in the role that a national museum can provide in its practice of collecting, and its care and respect for the relationships curators and historians build with individuals, families and communities. They give voice to stories of violence and destruction often only through fragments, small objects, images and testimonies. These artifacts, along with NMAAHC’s Tulsa Race Massacre Oral History Collection—one of the largest digital compilations—illuminates the fuller lives of people who suffered tragic loss and were too often forgotten. They also demonstrate a new understanding of the purpose of memory, one that changes how we value our history and what we value from our collective past.