A group of people gathered in the contemplation room at the NMAAHC.

Field Trip: National Museum of African American History & Culture

By Crystal Smith~

The NMAAHC building.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2019

On a brisk morning earlier this month, I gathered with my colleagues from the National Library of Medicine for a group tour of the  National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), a Smithsonian Institution museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Having previously visited the museum on a self-guided tour, I knew this experience would be much more memorable because it was to be led by a very knowledgeable docent, Ms. Denise Fayne who welcomed us to the museum and gave us the most outstanding tour!

Attending this event brought me back to my time as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland at College Park.  As a history major, I wanted to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge of the historical experience of African Americans in this country.  Back then, I had found myself taking all the classes taught by my advisor Professor Alfred Moss Jr., who is a member of the committee of scholars advising the Smithsonian on the development of the museum, and I realized this guided tour would provide me with a similar experience.

A group of people with a tour guide in a museum exhibition.
Docent Ms. Denise Fayne guides the NLM Tour group, 2019

During the tour, Ms. Fayne shared her extensive knowledge of African American History. She also explained the history of the longstanding efforts to make this museum a reality. It was very enlightening. It goes back further than many of us know. While I was aware that Congressman John Lewis consistently introduced bills for the establishment of the museum and that it took 15 years to pass in the Congress, it was on this tour that I learned that efforts began well before that. It took more than a century of advocacy for the museum to be built on the National Mall.

The experience of being guided through the museum exhibits and hearing some of the inside stories behind the acquisition of the historical artifacts demonstrated the importance of the preservation of museum objects that connect us to the past. In many instances, our guide was able to tell us who some of the donors were and to relate the individual stories they shared with the museum curators. That personal connection totally enhanced each exhibit.

Harriet Tubman display with scarf at NMAAHC.
Silk lace and linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria ca. 1897

For example, Ms. Fayne pointed out the exhibition of Harriet Tubman’s silk lace and linen shawl that was given to Ms. Tubman by Queen Victoria ca. 1897.  It’s displayed in the Slavery and Freedom exhibit at the museum.  It was in the possession of Ms. Tubman’s descendants who were very careful to preserve it since they realized the historical significance of the shawl that was once owned by this brave and courageous woman.

From the many conversations I had with my fellow NLM colleagues who participated in this amazing event, I can say for sure that everyone enjoyed this tour very much and we totally appreciated the museum staff for allowing us to have this special tour. Along with Dr. Reznick, chief of the NLM History of Medicine Division, who arranged the tour, each of us sent our personal thanks to Ms. Denise Robinson Simms, NMAAHC Director of Special Events who oversees the museum tours and expressed our special thanks to Ms. Denise Fayne for her outstanding presentation.

This trip was part of our ongoing appreciation of and learning from DC-area cultural institutions. I enjoyed sharing this experience with my friends and colleagues and I hope you have time to be with friends and family and to explore your history and culture in the new year. Happy Holidays!

Portrait of Crystal Smith at her desk.Crystal Smith is Reference Librarian in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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