Vassar Quarterly - Spring/Summer 2017 - 27
Berry's cherry-red Cadillac; ParliamentFunkadelic's 1,200-pound aluminum stage
prop, the Mothership; and the neon sign
from the music and dance show Soul Train.
The "Cultural Expressions" section
features, among other displays, an eye-opening wall showing an array of widely adopted
gestures first popularized in black culture.
One example is a famous photo of the Obamas
doing a fist-bump. There's also a short
glossary of Gullah words used by blacks that
built communities along isolated stretches
of unwanted land along the South Carolina
and Georgia coast after the Civil War, thus
preserving their culture and language.
"Taking the Stage" charts the history
of African Americans in theater, film, and
television, and explores the way in which
blacks have worked to produce more positive,
authentic, and diverse depictions of the
African American experience.
The "Visual Arts" gallery showcases
paintings, sculpture, works on paper, art
installations, photography, and multimedia
illustrating the role that African American
artists played in shaping the history of
American art. Serwer, who has held curatorial
positions at the Corcoran Gallery and the
Smithsonian American Art Museum, says
she and fellow curators had a list of artists
whose work they wanted to present, but
beyond that, one of their guiding principles
was to select items that would resonate with
stories in the rest of the museum.
There's a section of the Civil Rights
gallery that tells the story of Emmett Till,
a 14-year-old boy who, in 1955, was brutally
murdered and mutilated in Mississippi by
white supremacists who accused him of
flirting with a white woman. Photos of his
open casket helped to crystalize the Civil
Rights Movement. The visual arts gallery
displays David Driskell's Pieta-like painting
"Behold Thy Son," done in 1956 in response
to the killing.
The museum boasts now more than
37,000 historical artifacts, documents,
photographs, and other media illustrating
the major periods of African American
history. That's remarkable, considering that
when the museum was approved there was
no collection at all.
It took creativity and persistence. Curators
sought out certain items. Companies and
Clockwise from top left: The museum's Chief Curator
Jacquelyn Serwer P'05; Chuck Berry's Cadillac;
panelists university of Virginia architecture professor
Karen Van Lengen '73, Vassar Senior Lecturer
Emeritus in Art Jeh Johnson, and Columbia university
architecture professor Mabel O. Wilson; an homage
to the 1968 black power salute at the Olympics.
institutions donated others. But Serwer says
the majority of acquisitions came from
ordinary citizens. "Families had held onto
items that they knew were precious, that
they wanted to preserve. They sought an
institution where they could be shared
with the public, but there was no national
museum until we came along," she notes.
In 2008, museum officials launched the
program "Save Our African American
Treasures," a series of daylong workshops in
which participants worked with conservation
specialists and historians to learn to identify
and preserve items of historical value.
Curators toured cities around the country,
on occasion receiving artifacts from those
attending the program.
These ingenious efforts helped to make
a reality the only national museum devoted
exclusively to the documentation of African
American life, art, history, and culture.
But it wasn't easy getting there.
Panelist Mabel O. Wilson's book Begin with
the Past details the 100-year-struggle to get the
institution built. During the panel, she
explained that the kernel of intention can be
traced back to 1915, when black veterans, frustrated with continued discrimination, despite
their service, proposed a memorial to black
soldiers who had defended the country as far
back as the Revolutionary War. The idea eventually morphed into a museum and educational
center, said Wilson-a "holistic experience
that could tell the African American story."
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