Sometimes it’s hard to know which events today might have historical relevance tomorrow. It’s easier in some cases than in others. Loretta Lynch’s appointment as the first black woman to serve as attorney general? That’s something worth noting. An essay written by one seemingly scorned African-American intellectual about the alleged hypocrisy of another seemingly scorned African-American intellectual? Maybe not.
Luckily for most, deciding which current events are significant enough to record for posterity’s sake isn’t a concern. That responsibility falls to historians like Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which is scheduled to open in 2016.
Bunch and his team of curators and scholars don’t just collect artifacts from yesteryear—the NMAAHC team has to continually consider the future and what people 50 years from now will want to know about today’s black culture.
“Our job is both to look back and to look ahead. I meet with curators and say, ‘What’s important over the last year that we should be collecting?’ We begin to collect things on Ferguson[, Mo.,] and things on #BlackLifeMatters that will be important for curators down the road. We will have collected that material. Part of our job is to anticipate,” he told The Root.
The museum isn’t just quietly observing and taking notes. On Saturday the NMAAHC hosted a daylong symposium about policing in black communities. Hundreds of people attended to hear film director Ava DuVernay; journalists Jeff Johnson, Juan Williams and Mychal Denzel Smith; and activist Opal Tometi of Black Lives Matter and others discuss ways to improve the relationship between law-enforcement officers and African-American citizens.
“It’s our job to give people voice that have been voiceless and make visible those that have been invisible,” said Bunch, addressing why the NMAAHC decided to host a symposium on such a controversial topic. “This must be a museum that helps America remember its past to better understand its present,” he said.
While considering which current events might be relevant decades from now, Bunch is also busy locating objects that chronicle the past, including the experience of Africans before slavery.
“The museum begins in Africa. It helps us understand a life before enslavement. One of the most important things we want to do is to help people rethink slavery,” said Bunch, who acknowledged that some blacks would rather forget that painful past and look to the future. He noted, however, that there are lessons to be learned from those who endured and survived.
“I wish we were today as strong as our enslaved ancestors. I wish we knew how to keep family and soul together at an unbelievably horrific time, as our ancestors did,” he said. “I am not trying to celebrate slavery, but I want people to understand that one should not be embarrassed by the fact that some of our ancestors spent time in a horrible institution, but they refused to let the institution crush them.”
Although the history of Africans in America dates back centuries, Bunch said that he’s had success tracking down artifacts that adequately tell the African-American story. The museum’s curators have sought out relics, and many treasured remnants have been offered to the institution, such as Nat Turner’s Bible, which was donated by a descendant of people attacked during that historic slave revolt.
As for those items offered to the museum, Bunch explained that curators look for specific artifacts that tell significant stories. In other words, they’re not accepting just any old thing. “You don’t just pick objects willy-nilly,” he explained. “You look at scholarship to say, ‘What are important stories, like slave insurrections?’ So you want to find Nat Turner, or ‘What do you want to find that tells you about the military experience?’
“Once you have an idea of what you look for, then there are certain ways to do this,” he continued. “Our assumption has been that all of the 20th century and most of the 19th century is still in the basement trunks and attics of people. Part of our goal was to let people know, ‘Open your trunks for us. Let us look at what you have … ’ That’s how we found a lot of things.” Bunch also said that he had contacted collectors of black memorabilia.
Although Bunch acknowledged that he doesn’t necessarily have every historical item he’d like, he assured future visitors to the museum that there will be enough artifacts to tell every story that’s significant to the black experience. “There’s nothing I can think of that we don’t have. There’s nothing we don’t have that won’t allow us to tell a rich, nuanced and amazing story,” he said.
With more than 30 years as a historian and curator, there’s likely little that surprises Bunch about the African-American journey; however, he did say that he’s come across objects that caused an emotional reaction.
“There have been artifacts that … have moved us in profound ways. We were given a freedom paper by a man … who was enslaved in Virginia and got his freedom … in the 1860s,” Bunch said. “He had a piece of paper that documented his freedom. He knew how important that piece of paper was to his freedom and the freedom of his family. He created a ‘tin wallet’ by hand. He hammered out this tin container. He would put his freedom paper back in that tin container to make sure it wouldn’t be lost or damaged.
“That spoke volumes about the power of freedom and also how tenuous freedom was,” Bunch added. “If he lost that paper, he could be resold into bondage. Those kind of things I didn’t know we’d find have shocked me, have moved me, have made us cry,” he said.
Tracy L. Scott is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor who has contributed to the Washington Post, Essence, Think Positive magazine and Uptown magazine, where she writes on a variety of topics from arts and culture to current events. Follow her on Twitter.