On September 24, 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) officially opened its doors. The opening weekend schedule of activities and dedication ceremonies were impressive; you can see the details on the museum website and video highlights are also available. I avidly followed the busy social media streams of updates from the weekend and was surprised to learn that there are close to 37,000 artifacts in the collection - 37,000! As we conduct genealogical and family history research, let us not forget how museum collections can aid in our quest for understanding the stories of our ancestors’ lives.
Naturally, not all artifacts can be displayed at once at the physical site; however, NMAAHC offers an online search in a beautifully arranged to make it easy to find items of interest. Not all the item in their collection are represented in the online search, but the current database is a great resource to have available.
The search page facilitates browsing 5 ways:
- by topic
- by date/era
- by name
- by object type
- by place
Clicking on each option changes the grid of pictures displayed directly beneath - for example, the topic page shows clusters of items by categories such as “American South,” “Communities,” Military,” “Politics,” and “Slavery” while the Name page shows options such as “369th Infantry Regiment,” “Frederick Douglass,” “Mamie Till Mobley,” and “Poro College.” For any particular item in the collection, the online record provides details such as who created the object, what subjects are covered, what is the date represented, and topics covered.
And the items are varied! For example, there is a collection of almost 5,000 photographs of individuals from Greenville, Mississippi by photographer Henry Clay Anderson - imagine if you were from the town and located one of your own family members in this set. Those of us with African American ancestry often have to depict the harsh conditions of slavery as we recount our family’s past - broadsides, deeds, books, slave badges, fugitive slave notices, and more in the collection, can punctuate the stark realities of their existence. Additionally, the collection includes images of seminal moments of history, such as a lithograph by Thomas Kelly depicting the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment that took place on March 30, 1870.
These are just but a few examples of how the museum’s collection can aid us in telling our stories if we incorporate them as examples within our own accounts. If you do find an image that you want to use, please do follow the museum’s policy of image use and make a formal request with their online form.
Some of the collection items are available in other places, some are unique to the museum. But, the ability to come to the museum site and focus on these materials with particular significance to African American history is important. If you are working on sharing the story of any African American family, you will want to consider how the extensive collection at NMAAHC’s can aid you in telling that story. After all, as the statement on the front page of the website states - this is a people’s journey and a nation’s story. Embrace NMAAHC for all that is has to offer so we can keep the story ever-present.