The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Collecting Stories. Saving Treasures. Building a New Museum.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives will be celebrating African American History Month throughout February with a series of related posts on THE BIGGER PICTURE.
When I interviewed Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as part of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s online project click! photography changes everything, he spoke movingly about the role photographic images played in his personal development and in the planning of the museum’s future home on the Mall, scheduled to open in 2015.
“When I was a kid,” Bunch says in a video we made during our conversation (see above), “I had a grandfather who read to me all the time . . . One day we were looking at a history book and it had a picture of school children, I don’t remember if they were black, white . . . and he read the caption and it said, ‘Unidentified School Children.’ . . . Then I remember him saying, ‘And this picture was taken so long ago that these kids are probably all dead by now.’ And I remember thinking, ‘How could kids that look like me, my age, be dead?’ And then he said, ‘Isn’t it a shame that people could live their lives, die, and all it says is unidentified?’”
Bunch went on to describe how that childhood encounter with a photograph triggered his lifelong interest in artifacts and archives: “The notion of trying to find the story behind the faces, trying to identify who these people were . . . is what made me be a historian.” Photography, he explained, provides “a way into the African American experience that isn’t documented in any other way,” and helps people tell the stories that haven’t yet made their way into history books and archives.
As NMAAHC’s website explains, one of its goals is to rectify that. “The National Museum of African American History and Culture is busy creating its foundational collections . . . Our purpose is to collect and preserve artifacts, documents, and art that reflect the history and development of the African American experience in its many aspects.” To that end, the museum has been hosting day-long community events around the country to help the public identify and preserve items of historical and cultural significance tucked away in the attics, closets, and basements of their homes, and “hopes to benefit from donations of artifacts and archival documents.”