The National African American History and Culture Museum found itself in the middle of an explosive Twitter debate regarding cultural historian and museum specialist Timothy Anne Burnside, who happens to be white. With critique cropping up that a white person was the lead for an ongoing Hip-Hop exhibit at the museum, the NMAAHC issued a statement Tuesday (Sept. 25) addressing the controversy while noting Black leadership is indeed behind its larger curation efforts.
By way of a new release titled “Real African American History: A Story Told by Many Voices,” the NMAAHC expressed sensitivity to the concerns raised by @DJChubbESwagg and others surrounding Burnside’s appointment and her race. In its own words, the NMAAHC missive hammered home that Black voices are indeed shaping the cultural and historical landscape of the popular Smithsonian destination.
From the news release:
The museum is shaped and led by a leadership team that is largely African American — and the staff is firmly grounded in African American history and committed to the mission of the museum. We value that diversity and also recognize the importance of diversity of thought, perspectives and opinions. It has helped make the museum what it is today.
Out of a deep commitment, Ms. Timothy Anne Burnside launched the Smithsonian’s first hip-hop collecting initiative 12 years ago while at the National Museum of American History. Since joining the Museum in 2009, she has also played a key role in building the hip-hop collection as part of a larger curatorial team. Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, the curator of music and performing arts, leads that effort. We are proud of their work.
In the flurry of tweets last week, it may have been missed by some that Dr. Reece is a Black woman and highly respected in her field.
The museum adds in the release that it will work with the Association of African American Museums and other related groups to bring people of color into the institution and train them in the varying levels of approaches made in the museum space.
Via Twitter, veteran journalist and activist Harry Allen retweeted the NMAAHC’s release, writing in its caption, “This is, essentially, a non-statement.”
This morning shortly after the tweet went out, Twitter user @Spacehuntress wrote, “This entire ugly episode has greatly diminished my excitement about visiting the museum” – echoing what appeared to be a growing sentiment.
Twitter user @Cherry_LA adds, “You recognize the lack of diversity in museum senior management but still didn’t hire an African American to curate Hip & Hop a artform we created? Shame on you and your empty words and promises.”
A solution was presented by Twitter user @IamJoshImmanuel which read as such: “They could’ve just had legends come in once a month to talk hip hop culture or found a black person. It’s really not that difficult to find and if it is, wait for one.”
Hip-Hop Wired reached out to Allen to ask him why he felt the statement from the NAAMHC’s release fell flat.
“It’s not that the September 25 NMAAHC “Museum News” release was “flat,” but that it was a non-statement,” Allen answered. “It’s a non-statement because it does not address—that is, answer—the questions that began the controversy.”
He continued with, ” At 2:39 PM on Thursday, September 20th, @DjChubbESwagg posted these two questions: THERE IS A WHITE WOMAN CURATING THE HIP HOP PART OF THE NMAAHC SMITHSONIAN?!?!?!?!?!?!? WHO LET THIS SH*T HAPPEN!?!?!”
These weren’t the only questions he asked. For example, on Saturday, September 22, @DjChubbESwagg asked, ‘Why do I have to sit down and talk with someone outside of our culture for questions within our culture? And what are these credentials everyone keeps bringing up but not naming? Has she done something for hip hop before 03 outside of the Smithsonian yes or no?’
I don’t have to qualify these questions, or the other ones he and others, asked, and haven’t. I don’t have to do so because the Museum, and those who’ve responded, have done so, by the actions they’ve taken.
However, a statement would answer these questions, satisfactorily, or present the means to do so.”
There will surely be new conversations to crop up from this latest development.