Q&A with Director John Gray: Welcoming a new museum to the National Mall

Our next door neighbor, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opens on September 24, 2016, and our whole staff is abuzz. I sat down with Elizabeth MacMillan Director John Gray to discuss this exciting moment in American history as well as what's ahead for this museum when a new wing opens in summer 2017.

an exterior shot of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on a sunny day with a blue sky with clouds. The photo is taken far away from the building so you can see sidewalks, grass and a short wall. The building has three levels of metal walls that are stacked on each other.

We recently partnered with two other museums to present Many Lenses, a digital experience that explores objects from different perspectives. Can you tell me more about this collaborative project?

American history is infinitely interesting and complex because of the differing views and associations we have with objects, from the seemingly mundane to the most dramatic national symbols. The purpose of "Many Lenses" was to look at the same object, the same idea, in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian. We tried to find and illuminate the different perspectives, relationships, and connections around objects, and I think we've done that.

It's essential for the Smithsonian to talk about one American story that is inclusive and complex. We have multiple lenses or views, but it's still one story. Many Lenses is a clear demonstration of that basic belief that we live in one America with differing experiences and perceptions but ultimately share the same American experience.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opens on September 24. I hear that you've taken a preview tour. Can you tell us what caught your eye?

When I was there, I saw a stunning object from the "Many Lenses" project in person—the 1968 mural from Resurrection City, USA. Its scale and its impact are so dramatic, and you can really hear the multiplicity of voices that are painted on it. Standing in front of the real object, I experienced something very different than what I saw on the Many Lenses website. I was so struck by how it frames the much larger story of the 1960s and the way in which some of us lived in the '60s or fantasize about the '60s.

The experience of seeing the mural online and in person will help visitors to NMAAHC understand the deeper meanings underpinning such a complex object as well as the spirit of the movement taking place around it.

The abolitionist tea seat that our curator Fath Davis Ruffins writes about on "Many Lenses" is another wonderful example of how you can look at an object through cultural, personal, economic, and so many other lenses. You'd normally make an assumption about what a fancy tea set means in a museum and you might be bored with that assumption because it doesn't interest you. But all you have to do is go one layer down and you'll see there's this incredible story, symbolism, and message in how a family used this tea set in their everyday lives. That's a potent object.

What else stood out to you in your exploration of NMAAHC?

The architecture and exhibition design work in concert to create an extraordinary emotional and experiential setting for visitors. Another highlight are the beautiful, profound, and sometimes agonizing quotes inscribed on the walls of the building. You can't help but be hugely moved, and then reflective in your response, and then so aware of how far we have come as a society, with yet so much more to do. This museum presents some of the most difficult subjects for America in a way that's honest, straightforward, painful, and at the same time you feel connected to the very ideas of American history.

What will be different once NMAAHC opens?

What's important is that the American story is presented through the experience and the histories of African Americans in America. And that really focuses our understanding of history in new ways from any other place on the National Mall.

The visibility of that story on the Mall is significant to all Americans. We hope that there's an increased level of visitation to Washington to see NMAAHC and that the experience people have going to that museum spills over to the rest of the Smithsonian museums, as where they can explore many facets of the American story. And likewise, people who come to this museum will also go over to NMAAHC. Visitors' experiences will be more complicated, richer, and much more expansive than they would be without that museum.

A photo from the museum of the installed portion of the counter from the Greensboro diner. It includes the countertop, four chairs, and part of the back wall with a mirror on it.

One thing the two museums have in common is that we both share the story of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter where students and community members in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged sit-ins and boycotts for six months in 1960. What will be different about the ways the two museums highlight that story?

One of the most exciting things I saw during my time at NMAAHC was the high tech interactive display they've built to bring the story of the lunch counter to life. You can sit at a counter and have a profound media experience about the actual sit-in and ask questions and learn.

But the authentic counter itself remains at this museum. Soon, we'll be moving it to another location on the second floor where we will frame this national treasure in a new way and offer immersive, in-person programs to help our audiences understand its powerful history and meanings. So between the interactive component at NMAAHC and the original lunch counter here, we really can explore the role of civil rights in America through many different entry points.

Beyoncé is said to be planning to launch a television channel that will air documentaries on American history. The Get Down about the history of hip-hop is a very popular series on Netflix. Ben-Hur is in theaters right now. History appears to be cool again. How is the museum working to share American history with our audiences in a way that connects with where they are now?

The approach for our West Wing is one of making history engaging, really experiential, and deeply moving for visitors. People are interested in things that they relate to or that make a difference in their own lives. The subjects, topics, points of view that will be expressed in the new galleries on our second floor, which opens in summer 2017, will make a difference in the lives of many people. I think that's the point.

You've been very enthusiastic about encouraging your staff to use our collections and expertise to make the world a more humane place. And part of that is responding to current events. What are relevant topics you'd like to see museum draw connections to and help people to understand?

There's no doubt that this election season in America is dealing with one key subject: what does it mean to be American? Inherent in that question is: how do you act as an American, what do you think as an American, what do you believe in as an American? Our focus on the ideals and ideas of America throughout the museum directly relate to the exact discussions and topics of today. We argue that understanding where you came from and where you want to go informs the debate enormously, helping our audiences construct a future that is more humane.

One of the best things for us to learn about democracy is that those who participate in the democracy triumph. When we open our new floor in summer 2017, our goal is to help our visitors realize how important their participation is in American Democracy. Whether it's at the ballot box or their protesting, supporting, petitioning, volunteering, donating—it counts. We're inspiring our audiences to engage with and to determine what it means to be American.

In our exhibition Democracy: The Great Leap of Faith, visitors will see a range of objects from past elections. Every candidate has had to engage the public, win them over, and encourage them to vote—and the techniques of the past are fascinating to compare with the strategies of today. In Many Voices, One Nation, visitors will see how many different communities negotiated a way to come together. That profound experience of negotiating together-ness, which is totally American, has been so successful for so long. To ensure a more humane future, every American needs to actively participate and contribute to building our society.

In the first floor lobby, cutout figures stand amid voting machines carrying candidate signs over their heads for the 2016 election

In the first floor lobby, cutout figures stand amid voting machines carrying candidate signs over their heads for the 2016 election

Secretary David J. Skorton has encouraged us to advance the Smithsonian's mission in new ways. He recently wrote to the Smithsonian staff that, "To broaden our reach and create visibility, I think we can and should take a more prominent role in convening discussions important to people, even when these reveal differences. Climate change. Cutting-edge art. Evolution. Cultural concerns and ethnicity." Can you talk about how you see us doing that at this museum?

We very much appreciate that the Secretary sees the Smithsonian as a contemporary, active institution that has an impact on people today. We work very hard to make sure our visitors' experiences in this museum are far from dry or dusty—and that we address topics important to people today. For example in American Enterprise our exhibition on the history of American business, we talk about the role of slavery in the development of the nation from an economic and property perspective. This results in a more complicated, realistic, and deeply painful understanding of the role of slavery in the nation. That discussion has been so important. As we continue our project on Latinos in Baseball, it raises all the questions and many answers about how people create an identity around being an American. And so framing these questions to be open, inviting, and interesting will generate not only much more discussion but also a higher level of understanding and compassion among all of the citizens.

If you go to the first-floor Constitution Avenue lobby today, you'll see the Hooray for Politics display with Clinton and Trump campaign signs set within a display of historic election booths. You can see visitors standing there and talking about the current campaign as well as reflecting on past campaigns and the role of voting. Here's an example of an exhibition that truly comes alive through the discussions the visitors bring with them.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. She recently helped create a Facebook Live video about some of the interesting objects in NMAAHC's Cultural Expressions gallery, a great opportunity to learn about African American foodways.