My Internship: “In Slavery’s Wake”

This semester I’ll be interning in the Center for the Study of Global Slavery (CSGS) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). I’ll be predominantly working on “In Slavery’s Wake: Making Black Freedom in the World” (ISW), an exhibit that will premier at the NMAAHC before traveling to partner museums around the Atlantic, and its companion website. The CSGS’s mission is to connect NMAAHC with communities and institutions around the world and to demonstrate the importance of histories of slavery to local communities and the present. ISW connects with that mission by narrating personal, localized histories of slavery in the larger Atlantic context and positioning its material via the continuing impact of slavery and liberation. The exhibit ultimately asks visitors to consider what reparative justice and freer futures could, would, and should look like.

An exciting aspect of “In Slavery’s Wake” is its connections with the communities it will be traveling to. Early in the design process, CSGS and its partners interviewed local artists, activists, and scholars for their perspectives on slavery’s legacies. These interviews and others, as well as ISW’s collaborative curation process, are part of the “Unfinished Conversations” (UC) series. These voices will be included in the exhibit and also be part of an oral history that will be housed at Brown University’s John Hay Library.

Having only just dipped my toes into the project, I’m already much more aware of the scope of the work and the number of people required to put on a major museum exhibit. As a history research and writer, I had thought of the process mostly as one of writing content and selecting supporting materials, but I now realize that those descriptions hide the work of curatorial and preservation staff that borrow materials from other museums, insure objects and images are displayed in ways that won’t damage them, and maintain catalogs of the collections. Similarly, I hadn’t appreciated the work of designers creating detailed 3D layouts and 2D images and signage that take into account not just the information being displayed but also the logistics of lighting, projection, and security. I’m excited to learn more about these processes and others I have yet to realize are going on. I’m also eager to start contributing!