A Vision For the Future: The NMAAHC’s Searchable Museum

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Mary Elliot Curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History

On November 18th the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture launched a comprehensive interactive digital platform, the Searchable Museum.  This is a visually engaging and dynamic platform that is intuitive for users.  Upon the very first click, viewers are immersed within a labyrinth of information uniquely chronicling the trajectory of the African American lived experience beginning in the 1400s.

The Searchable Museum is This is an opportunity for all of us to truly understand the distinct connectivity of Black people across the Diaspora. On a daily basis, there is no shortage of racist innuendo that we are faced with and forced to reconcile and unpack for cultural outliers. However, it is with the reclaiming of African American culture and establishing new traditions do Black people themselves conduct their own healing. I know this has been true for myself.  Sharing this platform, which is graciously funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, is a great start. 

The way in which we save a generation, and create a vision for the future, is to first engulf Black people in their culture. It is not my belief that the Black experience begins and ends with race and its construction. Nor should it be yours. This is a design forced on Africans globally; as they were systematically excavated and exploited for their skills, knowledge, wisdom, and expertise. 

According to Jingle Culture and Commerce:

“Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by an introductory video, before entering four discrete parts, each split into chapters containing artworks, artifacts, multimedia, and historical material that explore how a global economy was built on the back of an inhuman trade. These assets — from 3D models to videos to audio podcasts — were gathered from the NMAAHC’s existing digital collection or were created especially for the platform.”

by Achille DevÈria, printed by FranÁois Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Unknown artist, hand-coloured lithograph, 1830s

Over the past year, I have explored the research cultivated by scholars and historians from the Association of African American Life and History (ASALH) and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in order to contextualize the experience of my ancestors and better understand their and my affinity towards certain things. The searchable museum provides an opportunity for you to virtually walk through a slave cabin from Edisto Island in South Carolina. You can also see a photograph of a smiling family that is also enslaved. That image was very powerful to me. The photograph does not display a family that is happy and satisfied with their condition. Yet, we get to witness a family. A family that has found its joy, and maintained its dignity, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.  

When you encounter the Searchable Museum, remember that this is from the African American experience. What is even more compelling is that there were free African Americans living and working during this time. They were often set apart and did not socialize with the enslaved population. Imagine if you will, how that would look today. Notice any similarities?

Some people were travelling all across the world and living lives that most Black people were not privy to at that time, much like we may find even today. However, one of the key differences is that the signs for discrimination were more overt. The “keep out” signs were front and center. 

“In a Cotton Field of South Carolina.”
Photo by Okinawa Soba (CC)

Why is this important?

The African American experience did not begin with being captured in Africa and it does not end with Martin Luther King Jr. It is rooted in a culture of different tribes that forced to become one.  They did not speak English, nor did they speak the language of the African they were chained too at times. Yet, they learned. They observed. They communicated. Freedom was always on the agenda and therefore, they waited. The contribution of white Americans at the time were not solely as slave holders. We know this because that was reserved for the wealthy class.

We also bear witness to the pervasive tension between religion and government and the fight for human rights on free soil. We learn how the immorality of slavery chipped away at the American conscious mobilizing people to risk their lives to fight against it. We also discover the government sanctioned violence and oppressive laws designed to keep the profitable industry of slavery intact. In as much as I am inspired and fueled by the stories of resilience and fortitude—I’ve experienced deep sorrow for the victims of harrowing violence from uncompromising hands of racism. 

The ongoing efforts of our cultural institutions and everyday citizens committed to progressing notions of humanity and dignity surrounding Black people keeps me encouraged. It lets me know that those lives lost were not in vain. 

“The American Soldier. Set 5.” U.S. Army Center of Military History.

I believe that simply learning this history and culture provides the spiritual obeisance needed to balance the scales. We can never fully know.  But we can be compassionate. 

I love sharing culture with my students all over the world. I typically start with food, and we also share music. I find that my students love to learn and want to hear more. The sharing of our culture helps to move the conversation from appropriation to appreciation. For example, the way my Nana does things in the Midwest is different than how Big Momma does it down South. How did your grandmother do things? As you can see, it is all a culture we can share.  It also reflects how intimately connected all of our histories are and validates that there are many perspectives. 

This is a special time in history where we technology can be leveraged to this degree in order to share information on a broad scale. There is a lot to unpack, and history is still being made. I plan to engage a lot with the searchable museum. There is a robust catalogue of images that most people have never seen before and this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Hopefully you will be inspired to document and digitize your own histories and leave an imprint of your legacy for all those who will come after you. 

You can explore more at the National Museum of African American History and check out the Searchable Museum.