The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Save Our African American Treasures
Smithsonian Institution Archives' (SIA) Fulfillment Manager & Photographer, Michael Barnes, has become the “unofficial” photographer for the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s (NMAAHC) Save our African American Treasures program. Over the past two years, he’s traveled to cities across the country with members of the Treasures team. Michael documents the events and some of the objects that individuals bring in to share and learn more about. At a recent program in Detroit, Michael photographed a woman who brought in locks of hair that she had saved from members of her family. He was struck by how powerfully those keepsakes evoked remembrances of loved ones. It also made him think back to a woman who came to a Treasures program in Charleston, South Carolina in May of 2009. This woman brought in her grandmother’s sack that contained a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, and a lock of hair. This sack was given to her grandmother, when she was a 9-year-old slave girl by her mother, who she never saw again once she was sold. The story itself was sewn into the sack. Save Our African American Treasures is a collaboration among cultural institutions, community leaders, and the public to preserve and collect African American material culture. NMAAHC launched Treasures in January 2008. Since then, the program has been conducted in Atlanta, GA; Charleston, SC; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Los Angeles, CA; Topeka, KS; St. Helena, SC; and Washington, DC. The centerpiece of the program is Hometown Treasures. Participants bring up to three personal items for a 20-minute, one-on-one professional consultation with experts on how to care for them. The specialists serve as reviewers, not appraisers, and do not determine items’ monetary values. Objects such as books, paper, and textiles can be reviewed. SIA staff members have supported the Treasures program by serving as reviewers. Reviewers listen to information provided by the participant, and/or ask questions to help place the object in a historical context, and provide advice on how to care for these items. The NMAAHC collects some of these items for the new museum that will open on the National Mall in 2015. However, since we don’t collect everything that we review at Treasures, its important that we help families preserve these precious possessions in the non-museum environment of their homes. Additionally we hope to raise awareness about preserving other items that they did not bring to Treasures. In order to facilitate this we offer additional educational components, including: Preservation Presentations: Informal one-hour lectures cover topics such as photographs, textiles, provenance, and planning for disasters. The sessions include an opportunity for participants to ask questions. Hands-on Preservation: Participants have the opportunity to learn how to store and to practice packing garments, store paper and photographs, and keep ceramics in good condition for generations to come by using preservation tools, materials, and techniques. Oral Histories: Participants record a brief personal memory, a family story, or a memory of a historical event. Family members are encouraged to interview each other. Expo: Local organizations are invited to host a table where they can distribute materials and answer questions from members of the public. As a companion to the Treasures project, the museum has produced African American Treasures: A Preservation Guide, a 30-page guidebook that is distributed free to attendees at the program and to individuals, community groups, and educators to highlight the importance of proper preservation techniques. The guidebook is part of a Treasures kit, which also includes white cotton gloves, archival tissue papers, and archival documents sleeves to help people keep their personal treasures safe.
More than 150 people brought family objects to the first Treasures program held in Chicago in January 2008. In the crowd was Patricia Heaston of Chicago, who brought a white sleeping-car porter’s cap, and a gold-colored pin bearing the image of an African American woman. She learned that the white porter’s cap was rare (most caps were black or blue), and its color meant that its owner had tended to prominent travelers (perhaps even Presidents) on a private train car. The image on the pin was that of Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919), the first African American female self-made millionaire. The pin was probably given as a prize to successful sales agents of Walker’s hair-care products. Treasures is not the only way that NMAAHC collects objects. On our website, individuals can learn about our acquisitions initiative and access a donation form. Treasures is made possible with support from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The grants also support the pre-design and construction of the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., scheduled to open in 2015.
Tracey Enright is the Public Programs Coordinator at the National Museum of American History and Culture