African American Groundbreakers at the Smithsonian: Challenges and Achievements

Explore more than 150 years of African American history at the Smithsonian. 

Scroll to explore this topic

Michael Barnes

An employee of the Smithsonian since 1975, Michael Barnes is one of a select group of photographers with the responsibility of documenting the history of the Smithsonian.1 Pragmatic and passionate about photography, he worked his way up from the Smithsonian’s print shop and taught himself the art of taking pictures. As a skilled craftsman, he has photographed everything from ancient Egyptian sarcophagi to the 1995 Million Man March on the Washington Mall to the construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

An Early Interest in Photography

Born in 1956, Michael Rayford Barnes grew up with his five siblings on Washington DC’s northeast side. As a child, he witnessed the tumult of the civil rights era.  One of his most vivid childhood memories was watching troops patrol his neighborhood during the unrest that shook the city in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April of 1968. When the National Guard arrived in town to augment the city police force, they bivouacked in one of the empty lots that had been cleared to build the Fort Totten Metro station near his boyhood home. As Barnes recalled in a 2016 interview:

When people ask if there were tanks in DC, I say yes there were. I saw them roll down the street. They came down North Capitol, right around the corner from where I lived."

Though the unrest did not reach Barnes’s neighborhood, he observed the stacks of weapons and knew “to stay away.”2

It was at Bell Vocational High School in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood that Barnes first came to love photography. The teacher who ran the school’s print shop program also taught photography and encouraged the students in Barnes’s cohort to get involved in the school’s amateur photography club. With a sturdy Neckermann slung around his neck, Barnes shot pictures for the school paper of football games, dances and other school events. With incredible determination that would serve him well for the rest of his career, he developed his eye for a good photo through practice, practice, and more practice.3

Towards the end of his junior year of high school, Barnes asked his father if he could dig out a dark room in the basement. Amused but supportive nonetheless, his father granted permission. Having cajoled some friends into helping him periodically, he spent several months moving earth, framing walls, and running electrical wires.  By the time it was “finished and fully functional,” Barnes had graduated high school and used it for only a few months before leaving home. Nevertheless, this homemade darkroom was a place where he could further refine his skills at photo developing, experimenting in ways that made it essential to his own creative process.4

A Career at the Smithsonian

Michael Barnes, Photo Archives Specialist, taking a photo.Like many other high school graduates that year, Barnes had a difficult time finding a job in 1975. The once-booming American economy had already begun to stagnate and was still reeling from 1973 Arab oil embargo. After months of looking for steady work, he considered joining the armed forces, especially if they could guarantee that he could continue to pursue his photographic ambitions. In October of 1975, Barnes had even scheduled his placement exam with the Navy. Later that week, on his bicycle, pondering the future that lay before him, he stopped by his old high school where his printing teacher told him about a job in the print shop at the Smithsonian. Placing a call from his old teacher’s office, the Smithsonian offered him an interview and when he arrived the following day Herman Thompson, the assistant manager, offered him a job on the spot.5

In 1975, the print shop was located in a cramped and busy set of rooms on the equally cramped and busy second floor of the Arts and Industries Building. Though it was a lot of work, Barnes had “a lot of fun working there.” Before the advent of high speed photocopying and computer technology, everything that the Smithsonian needed to print – from press releases to phone books to Congressional Budget reports – came from the offset printing presses in the print shop. The twelve employees who staffed the shop, most of whom were African American, were vital in keeping the sprawling Smithsonian Institution in communication with itself in an era before much of this material would have been instead posted to the web.6

When Barnes first started at the print shop, he never considered this was going to be the beginning of a lifelong career at the Smithsonian. This first job was a temporary position that was supposed to last less than a year. However, when his time ran out, the chief of the Duplicating Branch, Joseph Freeman, was so impressed with Barnes that he convinced the Assistant Secretary for Administration, John Jameson, to make Barnes’s position permanent.7

A Practical Mind at Work

Over the next decade and a half, though it was often loud and hot, the print shop was nevertheless a “nice place to work.” Both Freeman and Thompson, who became Duplicating Branch chief in 1985, had confidence in the skill and professionalism of their employees. As Barnes remembered it, “our bosses didn’t look over our shoulders.” Every workday from 6:00 am to 3:30 pm, Barnes performed the painstaking and finicky work of running and maintaining the office’s offset presses.8 In 1980, he won a promotion from Duplicating Equipment Operator to Offset Press Operator.9 By 1987, he became Offset Press Operator Leader, with responsibility for managing the incredible volume of print runs that came through the office on a daily basis.10

During his years in the print shop, Barnes successfully anticipated the technological changes that would dramatically transform the work of printing and duplicating. In the later 1970s, when the print shop moved to roomier quarters at 1111 N. Capitol Street, the Smithsonian purchased several high-volume Xerox photocopiers. Though the skills of offset printing would still be required for specialty work, these new copiers would now be used for most daily duplicating needs. Barnes made sure he knew how to maintain and repair this new equipment. Again keeping ahead of the pace of technological change, Barnes enrolled at Montgomery Community College for computer education in 1990. This was just after Apple’s introduction of the first graphic user interface and Microsoft’s Windows operating system was beginning to revolutionize computing, not to mention office technology and the printing industry.11

As Barnes describes himself, “I’m a student of what you need.” This pragmatism helped him survive the technological transformation of his work far longer than many other printers of his generation. This practical ability to think on his feet also helped him to anticipate the Smithsonian’s decision to close the print shop altogether in 2003.12 

Smithsonian Photographer

Son on Father's Shoulders at Million Man March
In 1995, Michael Barnes performed his first paid work as a photographer for the Smithsonian. In October of that year, hundreds of thousands of African American men gathered on the National Mall in response to Louis Farrakhan’s call for a Million Man March to demonstrate self-reliance in the face of the ills plaguing African American communities and to “defy negative stereotypes” about black men.13 Barnes and the rest of the Smithsonian’s print shop responded to the call and decided that “we weren’t going to work that day. So, everybody took the day off.”  Jim Wallace, the Smithsonian’s director of Photo Services, knew of Barnes’s interest in photography and asked him to record the event for the Institution. Camera in hand, Barnes wandered through the crowd and shot the event from his viewpoint, focusing in particular on “interactions between fathers and sons.” Wallace was so impressed with the results, that be arranged for Barnes to be paid for his time.14

That really marked the beginning of Barnes’s career as a photographer with the Smithsonian. During his years in the print shop, which was one just half of the Office of Printing and Photographic Services, he got to know some of the folks in the photography section. Eventually, these connections led to a position at the National Museum of Natural History under the direction of photographer Don Hurlbert, who hired him to photograph Egyptian artifacts after the print shop closed its doors. With Hurlbert’s help, Barnes again built upon his repertoire of technical knowledge and learned how to photograph professionally.15

Photographic Highlights

In the years since, Barnes has used his photographic skills to digitally preserve the collections at the Smithsonian Archives and to record historic events in and around the Smithsonian. As he related in a 2012 interview:

Anything that happens near the [Smithsonian’s] buildings, these images tell the story of the buildings’ history and the events that help shape it."

In many ways, the history of the Smithsonian is the history of the National Mall. Anything that happens in that space is an essential part of the history of the Institution. Because the National Mall is on the Smithsonian’s “doorstep,” Barnes has photographed dozens of national protests since the 1995 Million Man March and since 2000 he has recorded every presidential inauguration.16 Barnes has also documented the building of the National Museum of African American History and Culture that opened in 2016.

Inauguration Visitor with the Smithsonian Castle in the background. 2009.In August of 2011, the Smithsonian acquired the Spirit of Tuskegee, a PT-13D Stearman open cockpit, bi-plane that had once served as a training aircraft for the famed black Tuskegee Airmen. After the war, the plane had put in decades as a crop duster until US Air Force Captain Matt Quy purchased and restored it in 2005.  After discovering the plane's place in history, Quy offered it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Capt. Quy decided to fly it to Washington DC, making various stops along the way including the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Moton Field at Alabama’s Tuskegee University where the plane had first entered service. As an official Smithsonian photographer, Barnes accompanied the Spirit of Tuskegee on its historic journey documenting its travels. He photographed the plane in flight through the open door of a second aircraft. For Barnes, this trip was more than professional. His son, Christopher Platte, is an Air Force crew chief and Christopher’s uncle was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen and had personally trained more than 300 black pilots during WWII.17

Barnes’s work on the Spirit of Tuskegee perfectly captures a relationship to his work that transcends merely documenting new acquisitions. Barnes strove to capture “the essence of its cultural and historical meaning,” by photographing “people interacting with the plane” and demonstrating “the relationship between the two.” Such images serve as an “eye opening reminder of where people have been, how far we have come, and not to forget.”18 Similarly, he has worked to document the NMAAHC’s Save Our African American Treasures program, which is a nationwide collaborative effort “among cultural institutions, community leaders and the public to preserve and collect African American material culture.” The Treasures team travels the country encouraging individuals to bring in objects and family heirlooms for preservation and documentation. For example, in May of 2009 an elderly woman came to a Treasures program in Charleston, South Carolina.  She brought with her a sack given her by her grandmother. The sack contained “a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, and a lock of hair.” Her grandmother received it from her mother “when she was a 9-year old slave girl.” It was the only family keepsake she had of her mother who soon afterwards was sold away to another master. This story was itself “sewn into the sack.”19 Moving beyond simply recording the objects on film, Barnes’s best work captures the often intense emotional relationships between these collectors and objects laden with the memories of loved ones long lost.   


Related Resources



1 Susannah Wells, “The man, the myth, the lens,” The Bigger Picture: Exploring Archives and Smithsonian History, Smithsonian Institution Archives (hereafter SIA),17 May 2010. - Accessed 17 June 2016. Return to text

2 SIA, Record Unit 9636, African American History Oral History Interviews, Interview 3, June 14, 2016, Barnes, Michael Interviewee. Return to text

3 IbidReturn to text

4 Ibid.; Pamela Henson, Michael Barnes Research Notes; Chronology, Michael Barnes Research File. SIA. Return to text

5 SIA, Record Unit 9636, African American History Interviews, Interview 3, June 14, 2016, Barnes, Michael Interviewee Return to text

6 IbidReturn to text

9 Smithsonian Institution Telephone Directory 1977. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1977), 3. and Smithsonian Institution Telephone Directory 1980. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1980), 4. Return to text

10 Smithsonian Institution Telephone Directory 1987. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1987), 4. Return to text

11 SIA, Record Unit 9636, African American History Interviews, Interview 3, June 14, 2016, Barnes, Michael Interviewee; Ted Friedman, Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture. (New York: New York University Press, 2005), Chapter Five. - Accessed 23 June 2016. Return to text

12 SIA, Record Unit 9636, African American History Interviews, Interview 3, June 14, 2016, Barnes, Michael Interviewee. Return to text

13 Michael A. Fletcher and Hamil R. Harris, “United They’ll Stand, March On Washington,” Washington Post, 10 Sept 1995, 1; Michael A. Fletcher and Mario A. Brossard, “March Has Solid Support of Blacks, Poll Finds,” Washington Post, 5 Oct 1995, A1. Return to text

14 SIA, Record Unit 9636, African American History Interviews, Interview 3, June 14, 2016, Barnes, Michael Interviewee; Wells, “The man, the myth, the lens.” Return to text

15 SIA, Record Unit 9636, African American History Interviews, Interview 3, June 14, 2016, Barnes, Michael Interviewee. Return to text

16 Courtney Esposito Bellizzi, “Inaugurations in View: A Conversation with Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Photographer,” The Bigger Picture: Exploring Archives and Smithsonian History, SIA, 21 Jan 2013. - Accessed 17 June 2016; Wells, “The man, the myth, the lens.” Return to text

17 Courtney Esposito, “An Airborne Adventure: Photographing a Tuskegee Airmen Plane,” The Bigger Picture: Exploring Archives and Smithsonian History, SIA, 19 Jan 2012. - Accessed 17 June 2016; Joe Simnacher, “Claude Platte, Jr., instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen, dies at 92,” The Dallas Morning News, 3 Oct 2013. Accessed 17 June 2016; SIA, Record Unit 9636, African American History Interviews, Interview 3, June 14, 2016, Barnes, Michael Interviewee. Return to text

18 Esposito, “An Airborne Adventure.” Return to text

19 Tracey Enright, “Save Our African American Treasures,” The Bigger Picture: Exploring Archives and Smithsonian History , SIA, 29 March 2011. - Accessed 2016 June 17. Return to text