NMAAHC- What I’ve Been Waiting For!

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When Phyllis asked which museum we were most excited to explore, I knew that my answer was the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH). I’ve heard such great reviews from those lucky enough to get their hands on the museum’s coveted tickets. As we waited outside, the museum didn’t appear to be very large. It wasn’t until we went inside, huddled in the elevator, and began ascending into the history galleries that I grasped the true depth of the museum.

I was so glad that we were able to enter the museum early- moving freely through the intimate history galleries was really important to me. It allowed me to move at my own pace, ensuring that I could see all the objects that were important to me.

My largest takeaway from the museum was how our institutions can ultimately shape our world. The objects selections that curators make and how information about those objects is presented to the public can make for a wide range of institutional biases. Many museums, especially in DC, are focused on the founding fathers. DC landmarks and attitudes glorify our founding fathers and their ideals, but NMAACH makes an important distinction: our fight for independence was glorious, but hypocritical, since our country concurrently denied that same freedom to slaves.

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One of the most striking images in the museum, for me, is pictured above. The words of the Declaration of Independence are hung on for the wall for all to see. Below it, the struggles and accomplishments of enslaved people are discussed. This is truly the “Paradox of Liberty,” as evident in the museum’s exhibit text. While our textbooks glorify men like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, African-Americans are often pushed to the perimeter. For decades, the American experience and our country’s history textbooks are informed by the accomplishments of white men. NMAACH fills in the blanks, highlighting figures that sacrificed just as much (if not more) than our early presidents.

My favorite object in the entire museum was a book from Phyllis Wheatley, an African-American poet that wrote during the American Revolution. The 18th century is one of my favorite time periods to study and I believe Phyllis Wheatley to be a trailblazer. Many slaves, let alone female slaves, could not read or possess the ability to become a published author. She felt that her voice needed to be heard and her story wasn’t being told by 18th-century American society.

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2014.273.8, The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of M. Denise Dennis, in honor of the Dennis Family.

The visit to NMAACH drove home for me the responsibility that museums have to the public. Our museums have historically been colored by a white, European view of thinking. While beautiful and part of our unique story, this viewpoint should not be all-encompassing. It is important to document our country’s struggles, no matter how painful or uncomfortable, to ensure that our American story can be documented as fully as possible.

 

 

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Oyster can used by H. B. Kennerly & Son, Inc.

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The object I selected was an oyster can from a company in Wicomico County, Maryland that is on view in the “Cultural Expressions” exhibition. At first glance, this item seems unrelated to African-American history. However, I selected it because I know exactly how it fits in with the rest of the museum’s objects.

Many African-Americans were involved in the recovery of oysters, bringing them back to oyster packing facilities, the shucking of oysters, cleaning, and ultimately packaging into cans such as this one. I work part-time at Annapolis Maritime Museum, which is located in the former building of McNasby’s Oyster Company. Here, I learned about the involvement of African-Americans in this process. At the McNasby location and locations such as H.B. Kennerly, African-American men would head out on boats around 4-5am, use hand-tongs to grab oysters off the bottom of the bay, and would unload later at the building. Inside the building, both African-American women and men would clean, shuck, and package the oysters for consumption.

I actually was able to speak to former employees of McNasby’s one day at the museum. I was told that many African-Americans were specifically involved at McNasby’s because it was one of the few jobs that they could earn decent wages.

Here’s a great photo I found from Annapolis Maritime’s collection. I was hoping to find a photo they have on the exhibit floor of two men using hand tongs as icicles are forming on the side of the boat, but I don’t think it is available online.

 

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Prior to working at Annapolis Maritime, I was pretty clueless about oysters in general. But I certainly didn’t know how hard watermen worked to harvest oysters. All of this work would take place in the winter months during harsh and cold conditions. Oysters, if harvested in the warmer months, take on a gritty taste because they are in the midst of reproducing.

I’m interested to see how the museum highlights African-American watermen. I am curious if they will focus on watermen simply in the Chesapeake Bay or if they will branch out and speak to other locations. Regardless, I’m glad that the contributions of African-American watermen are recognized.