Christopher W. Wilson

Christopher W. Wilson

Director, Experience and Program Design and Director, Program in African-American History and Culture


M.A., History, Wayne State University
B.A., History and English Language and Literature, University of Michigan

Research Specialties: 
  • Late 18th - early 20th century American agriculture
  • Henry Ford's Richmond Hill, GA social experiment
  • African American history
  • Slavery and Emancipation
  • The Civil Rights Movement
  • 19th century baseball
Role in Museum: 

In leading Experience Program and Design as well as the Museum’s Program in African American History and Culture, Chris works to engage visitors in conversation about our nation’s rich and diverse history. Chris founded three major program series at the museum: its History Alive! theater programs, which offer interactive and emotional presentations of stories of America’s past that resonate in the nation’s present; the National Youth Summit series, which seeks to engage high school students nationally and internationally in conversation about relevant history; and the History Film Forum, an annual exploration of history on the screen. The director of the Program in African American History Culture since June 2004, Chris oversees the Program's rich collection of oral histories, interviews, and recordings. He strives to use programming to enrich the experience of every visitor by offering them a glimpse into the rich history and culture of black Americans and an understanding that the American experience springs from many diverse stories.


Chris has developed many varied programs at the Museum ranging from lectures and panel discussions to family festivals and historic theater performances. In 2015 Chris established an interagency agreement with the National Endowment for the Humanities to create the History Film Forum. The History Film Forum is an annual, four-day exploration of history on the screen. Millions of people learn history from movies but history as entertainment brings up important questions for artists and scholars alike. A collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Forum brings together experts and audiences to examine the state of both narrative and documentary history film as vehicles for teaching and interpreting history.The Forum is unique in its connection of audiences, historians, filmmakers, journalists, and policy leaders at our National Museum.


Chris wrote and directed the interactive play Join the Student Sit-Ins which has been presented more than 1500 times since the Museum’s reopening day in November 2008. The program has garnered thousands of positive comments from the more than 500,000 visitors who have participated in it. The short interactive play presents the story of the sit in for desegregation that began on February 1, 1960 at the Greensboro, North Carolina F. W. Woolworth lunch counter that is now part of the Smithsonian National Collection. Join the Student Sit-Ins was awarded the 2009 Smithsonian Education Excellence Award honoring the best educational program across the Institution. Under Chris’s leadership, the Museum’s theater program team continues to develop and present interpretations of historic characters from America’s past ranging from well-known individuals to Americans whose stories are unknown to most of our visitors, but who were equally important in shaping the American experience.

Chris founded the National Youth Summit, an American Alliance of Museums award-winning series of programs that convenes thousands of middle and high school students nationally and internationally around an historical topic with relevance for young people today. Most recently these programs have focused on the War on Poverty in 2015, 1964 Freedom Summer project in 2014, Abolition in 2013 and the Dust Bowl in 2012 and Freedom Rides in 2011. In 2011, Chris directed the Museum's programs in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides including the first National Youth Summit, which engaged thousands of young people nationwide with veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. In 2010, he led efforts to honor and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins including the Youth Town Hall with the Greensboro Four. In 2005 Chris created “We Shall Overcome: The 40th Anniversary of the Voting Rights March,” a living history and musical tribute to the civil rights activists who put their bodies on the line to bring about the Voting Rights Act. He directs the Museum’s annual celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. Chris also worked on the exhibition Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life and managed the Lincoln Lecture Series which looked at issues faced by the 16th president that are still relevant today.

As Acting Director of the Department of Public Programming during the Museum’s renovation from 2006 – 2008, Chris led the strategic planning and concept development for educational programs for the general public visiting the Museum. He planned the programming for the Museum’s grand reopening and the overall daily experience for the first year following the renovation. Visitors encountered more floor staff, music programs, theatre, and hands-on opportunities when they visited the revitalized Museum.

Chris presented, planned, and supervised public programs and exhibitions for eighteen years at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, before joining the staff of the National Museum of American History. There he oversaw agricultural history programs and exhibitions, working historical farms, historic horse-drawn vehicle rides, African American programming and exhibits, theatre, music, and interactive programs, a multi-year Harlem Renaissance project in collaboration with The Arts League of Michigan, revenue-generating classes and experiences, vintage baseball programming, weekend festivals including creating the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball, and worked as experience developer on a permanent exhibition on Henry Ford.

Online resources

Article - Reel History: Smithsonian/NEH History Film Forum Explores History on the Screen

Televised Panel Discussion - History Film Forum – The Birth of A Nation at 100

Article: Selma's Best Supporting Role: Diane Nash and the Voting Rights Struggle

Article: Prayers, Glittering Parties, and the Sudden taste of Freedom

The Roosevelts: A Conversation with Ken Burns

Online Conference: Civil Rights from Lincoln to Today

Podcast: Freedom Songs

Webcast: The Brass Letters of Citizenship - Lincoln, African Americans, and Military Service

Video blog on the creation of Join the Student Sit-Ins

Television program: Daedal Doors - Horsing Around at Greenfield Village

Blog Post: The Greensboro Sit-In -How do you exhibit commitment?

Blog Post: The March on Washington

Presidential Powers during Wartime

The 50th Anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-Ins

Blog Post: Remembering Franklin McCain

Blog Post: Retooling Society - A Lesser-known side of Henry Ford

Awards, Honors, and Special Recognition: 

1999 Harold K. Stramstad Award for Innovation

2009 Smithsonian Education Excellence Award

2013-2014 Palmer Leadership Development Program graduate

Professional Affiliations: 
  • American Alliance of Museums
  • National Council on Public History
  • Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums
  • International Museum Theatre Alliance