The annual Association of African American Museums Conference was treated to a special host this year: The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian’s latest addition that is still the hottest — and most elusive — ticket in town.
The conference, titled “Presence, Power, Persistence: Advancing the History and Possibility of Museum Activism,” rotated evening receptions around the Smithsonian’s museums, including the National Museum of African Art, the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, Anacostia Community Museum and the culminating closing reception at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
With more than 30 informational and training sessions packed into the four-day schedule, participants from museums across the nation participated in events held at the Capital Hilton, including a keynote address during the awards luncheon by the new librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden.
”We should encourage people to record oral histories,” Hayden said. “With their cellphones, they can become oral historians. When we bought the oldest known photos of Harriet Tubman with the NMAAHC, we were preserving a history. They will go on display with her shawl, which is in the museum’s collections. We have the photo with her wearing that shawl.”
The conference attendees filling the ballroom at the Northwest hotel were eager to hear from Hayden, who has achieved full rock-star status as the first woman and first black librarian of Congress. The audience lined up to shake her hand and take photos with her, to which she graciously obliged.
”To be encouraged, to learn, to read is the greatest gift you can give a child,” she said, pointing out that she wants the “Nation’s Library” to partner with museums and educational facilities to promote reading and literacy and ownership of their own histories.
Other highlights included a business meeting with keynote speaker Zena Howard, an architect who has worked on projects from the Anacostia Public Library in D.C. to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and her favorite, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Ibram X. Kendi, winner of 2016 National Book Award and author of the nonfiction bestseller “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” was one of the several featured writers.
Of course, one of the big selling points for the attendees was a chance — several opportunities, actually — to tour the new African-American museum, which continues to sell out daily passes within minutes of availability.
The closing reception, addressed by museum director Lonnie Bunch III, featured food and music gleaned from the city’s culture. Latin American, Caribbean and African-American soul food enticed attendees on multiple floors of the museum, where galleries stayed open for viewing while the legendary go-go band E.U.(Experience Unlimited) gave the evening a party flair after the intense sessions and serious discussions.
Bunch lauded the Association of African American Museums, a nonprofit organization founded in 1978 to serve the interests of African-American museums and the professionals associated with them.
”Without the lessons we learned at [the association], without your support, guidance and goodwill, there would be no museum — just an empty space with bad grass,” Bunch said. “Instead, your national museum has now served more than 2.5 million visitors who have made this a place of pilgrimage. And who have shared their memories and their lives.”