Finding a Place for Black History at the National Museum of American History


Thursday, April 27, 2023, 3:00 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Roundtable Discussion

Tags: African American; Museums; Public History and Memory


Members of the African American History Curatorial Collective (AAHCC) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will discuss how our work meets the needs of the museums’ publics “in uncertain times.” The roundtable will review several of the Collective’s projects including the “Collected” podcast and exhibitions, the first focusing on the Gullah communities of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry and the second concerning Black style and aesthetics. The Collective will also put our work in the larger contexts of public history, working with communities, and Black feminist theory,

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Modupe Labode, National Museum of American History
Dr. Modupe Labode has been a curator at the National Museum of American History since August 2019. She works in two divisions—Political and Military History and Cultural and Community Life—and her area of concentration is African American social justice history. Labode earned her doctorate in history at Oxford University and taught for several years at Iowa State University, her alma mater. Throughout her career she has worked at museums in Colorado and taught history and museum studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, where she was also a public scholar of African American history and museums.

Panelist: Krystal Klingenberg, NMAH
Dr. Krystal Klingenberg is a curator of music in the division of Cultural and Community Life at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Previously she held professorial positions at Swarthmore College and the University of Hartford. She received her PhD in May 2019 from the Music Department of Harvard University, with a secondary field in African and African American Studies. Her dissertation-turned-book project is on the creation and distribution of Ugandan popular music. It tackles questions of national identity in music, the status of copyright in Uganda today, and the growth of the Ugandan music industry. Klingenberg’s interests include global Black popular musics, African American music, digital media, and social justice. She is a member of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the African Studies Association and has held leadership positions in each.

Panelist: Crystal M. Moten, National Museum of American History
Dr. Crystal M. Moten is a curator of African American history in the Division of Work and Industry, where she specializes in African American business and labor history. Previously, she has been an assistant professor of history in small liberal arts colleges on the East Coast and in the Upper Midwest. Her current research centers on the intersection of race, class, and gender, and specifically Black women’s economic activism in the civil rights era Urban Midwest. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Civil and Human Rights and a special issue of Souls, which focuses on Black women’s work, culture, and politics. She has a chapter in The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North (NYU Press, 2019). At NMAH, she co-curated the exhibit The Only One in the Room: Women Achievers in Business and the Cost of Success. Her forthcoming book is titled Continually Working: Black Women’s Economic Activism in Postwar Milwaukee.

Panelist: Tony Perry, University of Virginia
Dr. Tony Perry is Curator of Environmental History and specializes in African American history as well as early American environmental history. Before coming to the National Museum of American History, he was a professor at the University of Virginia in the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies. He researches the environmental history of American slavery and how this history has informed broader issues around race and the environment. His forthcoming book focuses on enslaved people’s relationship to the environment and how they leveraged this relationship to reckon with being enslaved in early America. He continues work on a digital archival project that documents the perils and promise of water in African American life from the period of slavery to the present.

Panelist: Fath Davis Ruffins, Smithsonian
Fath Davis Ruffins is the Curator of African American History and Culture. She was head of the Collection of Advertising History at the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center from 1988 to 2001. Ruffins has curated or consulted on major African American exhibitions, and on community history projects around the country. She served as the original project director for Many Voices, One Nation, which opened at NMAH in 2017. Her publications include “Contesting the Nation” in Many Voices, One Nation: Material Culture Reflections on Race and Migration in the United States (2017). She has published on Black public history including “Revisiting the Old Plantation: Reparations, Reconciliation, and Museumizing American Slavery” in Museum Frictions and “Mythos, Memory, and History: African American Preservation Efforts, 1820–1990” in Museums and Communities. In 2018 her essay “Building Homes for Black History: Museum Founders, Founding Directors, and Pioneers, 1915–1995” won the G. Wesley Johnson Award from the National Council on Public History.

Panelist: Tsione Wolde-Michael, NMAH
Tsione Wolde-Michael is Curator of African American Social Justice History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where she also serves as director for the Center for Restorative History. Her work focuses on redress and restorative justice in museums through innovative approaches to community engagement, collections management, cultural heritage, and exhibitions. Her international work in Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, and the United Kingdom has focused on collaborating with local art and public history institutions to reinterpret colonial collections. Wolde-Michael’s decade-long work in the field of public history includes the landmark Slavery and Freedom exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her experience also extends to digital media and online exhibitions, curating visual art, writing for academic publications, teaching, and lecturing around the country. Wolde-Michael’s current projects include a special joint Smithsonian-wide initiative to document the history of the Black Lives Matter movement and leading the Smithsonian’s first-ever decolonization tactical planning team. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Women and Gender Studies from Macalester College and a master’s degree in History from Harvard University.