As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has reopened its doors, it does so with the largest cohort of African American curators in its more than 56-year history. Under the leadership of the Elizabeth MacMillan Director Anthea M. Hartig and guided by its new strategic plan, the museum has strengthened its commitment to equity with the recent hiring of five African American scholars across several curatorial departments. The new curators join the noted historian, curator Fath Davis Ruffins, who has a tenure of four decades at the museum, and Felicia Bell, the former director of Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum, who was appointed as senior advisor to the director in 2020 and is currently detailed to the Smithsonian’s “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past” initiative.
In 2019, the museum founded a new collective, the African American History Curatorial Collective (AAHCC), organized to advance the work of interpreting African American history at the nation’s flagship U.S. history museum. The term “collective” is used in recognition of the role of cooperative action in Black history and in the development of African American studies. It is also in recognition that their work builds on that of previous African American curators at the museum, including Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch; Spencer Crew, the museum’s former director (1994–2001) and most recently acting director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and music curator emerita Bernice Johnson Reagon.
“African American history is inextricably central to U.S. history, and our growing curatorial team forms an essential force in creating innovative, essential interpretive approaches at a time when cascading crises have shown us how race-based disparities continue to exist,” Hartig said. “Through the collective, the museum continues the Smithsonian’s commitment to accurately and responsibly tell these complex stories.”
This complexity warrants that AAHCC curators work with and across Smithsonian museums, research units, libraries and archives that specialize in African American history, including the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Together, the AAHCC represents the largest number of African American curators at the Smithsonian outside of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As a result of these hires, three museum divisions, including the division of Military and Political History, have African American curators among their ranks for the first time.
The long-term goal of the AAHCC is to amplify and incorporate the place of Black history in traditional narratives of American history and thus better reflect the rich complexity of our nation’s past. This ongoing work includes widening the interpretive lens through which the museum views existing collections and new acquisitions, participating actively in the creation of new educational materials and helping to shape the museum’s inclusive future.
Biographies of Members of the African American History Curatorial Collective
- Krystal Klingenberg, Ph.D. joined the Division of Cultural and Community Life as music curator in 2021. Klingenberg received her doctorate in music with a secondary focus in African and African American studies from Harvard University. Her specialty is in global Black popular music. She joined the museum from Swarthmore College and the University of Hartford where she taught Musical Cultures of the World, African Music and African American Music.
- Modupe Labode, Ph.D. holds a joint appointment as a curator of African American Social Justice History within the Divisions of Cultural and Community Life and Political and Military History since 2019. With a doctorate from Oxford University, Labode’s expertise is in African American history in the Midwest and West, monuments and commemoration, and public interpretations of Black history in places like museums.
- Crystal Moten, Ph.D. joined the museum in 2019 and focuses on African American Business and Labor History within the Division of Work and Industry. Moten received her doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin. Her research specialties include intersectional connections between African American labor, business and civil rights history with emphasis on post-World War II Black freedom movements in the urban Midwest.
- Tony Perry, Ph.D. is the curator of environmental history within the Division of Work and Industry. He joined the curatorial team in 2021 from the University of Virginia, where he was an assistant professor at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. Perry has written and lectured on the complex histories of slavery and the environment in early America. He holds a doctorate in American studies from the University of Maryland, College Park.
- Fath Davis Ruffins is a curator in the museum’s Division of Cultural and Community Life with a research focus on 20th-century urban history, ethnicity and commercial imagery and African American history and culture. Ruffins has a degree in American history and literature from Radcliffe College and an ABD in the history of American civilization from Harvard. She came to the Smithsonian in 1981.
- Tsione Wolde-Michael is a curator of African American Social Justice History in the museum’s Division of Political and Military History. Wolde-Michael’s areas of specialization include the Early Republic, U.S. slavery, along with museum decolonization and redress work. She started her Smithsonian career in 2011 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture where she worked on the landmark “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition. She joined the National Museum of American History in 2018. She holds a bachelor’s degree in women and gender studies from Macalester College and a master’s degree in history from Harvard University.
More information about the AAHCC and its members is available at http://americanhistory.si.edu/about/aahcc
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open Friday through Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, K–12 educational materials and programs. Follow the museum on social media on Twitter and Instagram and on Facebook. For more information go to https://americanhistory.si.edu/ or for Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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