Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture Goes Digital

The National Museum of African American History and Culture goes online with its new “Searchable Museum.” (all images courtesy NMAAHC)

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture first opened its doors in 2016, it was celebrated for its immersive installations that go beyond simply displaying aspects of the Black American experience. Now, the Smithsonian institution on the National Mall in Washington, DC, is bringing those presentations to life on a screen, making them accessible to audiences worldwide.

Harriet Tubman photographed by Harvey B. Lindsley, matte collodion print. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Launched yesterday after more than a year in the making, the Searchable Museum features newly digitized exhibition content as well as multimedia components, videos, audio podcasts, and 3D models based on the more than 40,000 artifacts in its collection. The first exhibition on the site is Slavery and Freedom, a permanent installation at the museum that traces the period from the 14th century to the Civil War and Reconstruction. It has been “entirely reimagined” for the digital space, a press release says.

“Allowing the public to virtually revisit the originating struggle for American freedom in the Slavery and Freedom exhibition reminds us of the centrality of the African American journey to the American experience — a story of triumph, resilience and joy over the centuries,” said Kevin Young, the museum’s director, in the statement.

“Waiting for the Hour,” carte-de-visite of an emancipation watch night meeting 1863, by Heard & Moseley. Albumen and silver nitrate on photographic paper. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Upon arriving at the Searchable Museum, the “History Elevator” takes visitors on a journey through the centuries with archival photographs and speech fragments, from an early emblem of the Abolitionist Movement to contemporary images of Black Lives Matter protests. The landing page presents four “chapters” to click through: “The Value of Freedom”; “Anti-Slavery in Black & White”; “A Divided Nation Fights for Freedom”; and “Reconstruction, Rights, & Retaliation.”

The “Explore” tab on the site highlights specific objects in the museum’s collection. One such artifact is a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman, the eminent abolitionist and activist who ran the Underground Railroad. The silk lace and linen scarf was given to her by Queen Victoria of England in 1897 as a gift of admiration for Tubman’s efforts to help free hundreds of enslaved people.

Kadir Nelson, “Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine” (2017), oil on linen. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Portrait Gallery, Gift from Kadir Nelson and the JKBN Group, LLC. (© 2017, Kadir Nelson.)

The digital platform dives deep into the stories of notable Black Americans both famous and less well-known in the mainstream, such as Henrietta Lacks, sometimes called the “Mother of Modern Medicine.” A vibrant oil portrait by contemporary artist Kadir Nelson accompanies a text about Lacks, whose cancer cells were taken without her consent in 1951. The “HeLa” cells, as they became known, were the first immortalized human cell line, used to develop the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, and even the COVID-19 vaccine.

One especially poignant section of the Searchable Museum is titled “The Paradox of Liberty.” A two-minute video feature depicts a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, surrounded by the names of the 609 people he enslaved during his lifetime. Statistical data illuminates the “paradox” on which the American nation was built: “Twelve of the first eighteen presidents of the United States were enslavers, including eight who enslaved Black people while serving in office,” the video says.

The new Searchable Museum offers online-only experiences, like exploring the interior of the Point of Pines cabin.

The online platform also offers experiences that the physical museum doesn’t. For example, the site lets visitors explore the interior of the “Point of Pines Slave Cabin” for the first time thanks to 3D photography. The cabin is one of two remaining in Edisto Island, South Carolina, where enslaved Africans Americans lived on the Point of Pines plantation. The structure was later home to formerly enslaved African Americans after the Civil War.

“By marshaling the latest technology and harnessing the scholarly and educational experience of the museum’s teams, the Searchable Museum tells the complex story of our nation’s history in ways only the National Museum of African American History and Culture can,” Young said.

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