In a 1991 issue of the Prophet, the Smithsonian African American Association’s newsletter, Claudine Kinard Brown called on staff to support Black museums across the country. The director of the National African American Museum Project wrote, “African American museums are the authentic family album for Black America, containing true reflections of the impact of our achievements upon the world and a wellspring of knowledge that can imbue us with personal strength and collective well-being.”
Fifteen years later, the Smithsonian opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the culmination of more than a century of advocacy for a space to celebrate Black history on the National Mall. But Brown was not present for the opening day ceremonies. Just a few months prior to the dedication, she passed away following a long battle with cancer.
Today, we remember how Claudine K. Brown advocated for a place for Black audiences on the National Mall.
Brown was hired by the Smithsonian for a one-year term in 1990 to head the Smithsonian’s African American Institutional Study. Led by a 22-member advisory board, the group was tasked with making recommendations for how the Smithsonian should establish an institutionalized Black “presence” on the National Mall. The study’s leaders debated whether or not to expand African American programs, staff, and exhibits at the National Museum of American History, exclusively, or across all museums on the Mall. Ultimately, the board reported that only a standalone National African American Museum could appropriately document the diversity of Black history and culture. They also strongly considered that the Arts and Industries Building could be a temporary home for the museum.
Following the study, Brown continued to advocate for an African American museum on the Mall. She was hired to be director of the National African American Museum Project, and, in 1991, she was formally appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Arts and Humanities. As director of the National African American Museum Project, Brown investigated the feasibility of the museum. In the summer of 1992, for instance, she and her team set out to answer a question about whether or not they could identify enough collections to fill an entire independent museum. They visited 500 archives, churches, and homes and discovered a treasure trove of possible future objects for the museum.
Despite the possibilities laid out in the African American Institutional Study and the successes of the National African American Museum Project, congressional debates about funding and the use of the Arts and Industries Building halted any possible legislation.
In 1995, Brown left the Smithsonian for a role as director of the arts and culture program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, but she continued to advise the Smithsonian on another planning group. In December 2001, President George W. Bush signed Public Law 107-106, which created a presidential commission to develop a plan for an African American museum. The President, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Speaker of the House chose Brown to participate and advise on the 23-member commission. Two years later, the group published The Time Has Come, a report of recommendations that led to the 2003 legislation officially creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Following her time at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Brown returned to the Smithsonian in 2010, this time, as the Assistant Secretary for Education and Access. In this role, Brown developed an Institution-wide plan for educational initiatives, created assessment strategies, and prioritized K-12 students. Additionally, she oversaw the National Science Resources Center and the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies and coordinated the efforts of the 32 education-based offices at the Institution.
Today, the Smithsonian continues to remember Brown’s legacy. In 2016, more than 400 Smithsonian colleagues gathered together in the Arts and Industries Building to celebrate her life and work. The Institution also established the Claudine K. Brown Internship in Education, which aims to help ensure “a diverse education and museum workforce of the future.”
- Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, Acc. 17-259, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Arts and Humanities, Acc. 95-171, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Claudine Brown Names Director of Education for Smithsonian Institution,” 21 June 2010, Smithsonian News Release
- Dodson, Howard. “A Place of Our Own: The National Museum of African American History and Culture.” Callaloo 28, no. 4 (2015): 730-41.
- “Claudine Brown Remembered, Revered as Advocate, Mentor,” by Patricia L. Bartlett, Association of African American Museums
- “In Memoriam: Claudine K. Brown,” 22 March 2016, Torch
- “How to Build History,” 22 June 1993, Washington Post