Reflections from the 2023 Association of African American Museums Conference
At the end of July, I flew to Nashville to attend the 45th annual Association of African American Museums (AAAM) meeting. Established in 1978, AAAM, a non-profit membership organization, provides support to African and African American focused museums and their dedicated professionals. This year’s conference delved into the significant roles of the African American community in shaping museums, music, and societal movements. As a new member and a first-time attendee, I was excited to explore the conference offerings and connect with fellow attendees.
Due to flight complications, I was unable to attend the opening plenary, which featured a conversation with Founding NMAAHC Director and Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III. However, I was able to attend the enlightening awards luncheon and plenary featuring a conversation with Reena Evers-Everette, daughter of the renowned civil rights icons Medgar Evers and Dr. Myrlie Evers-Williams. Evers-Everette currently serves as the executive director of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in Jackson, Mississippi, an institution dedicated to promoting positive social change, and continues to carry out the work her parents started in the 1950s. This year marks the 60th anniversary of her father’s murder, so it was poignant to hear the personal stories of her childhood and all of the work she is still doing for Mississippi.
Unified by recurring themes, the sessions I attended connected to the principles of intellectual freedom, the struggle against censorship, the pursuit of organizational sustainability, and the vital importance of preserving cultural heritage. Recent legislation around Black history instruction in states such as Florida, permeated almost all of these sessions, indicating that museums are grappling with historical revisionism, censorship, and local and national political pressures. There was a unified sense of concern around the importance of preserving the state’s Black history. In particular, a session on the May 20 emancipation celebrations in Florida highlighted the endeavors to safeguard fading community traditions and celebrations, as well as showcase the nature of these conversations. As Dr. Tameka Bradley Hobbs shared in two sessions, “It is hard to make an antiracist future if you don’t understand your racist past.” The conference itself embodied the idea that in order to move forward, we must talk about our past. This was intimately shown on stage when AAAM president Dr. Vedet Coleman-Robinson was presented with her African Ancestry results of where her maternal DNA originated in Africa.
The commitment to antiracism, DEAI, and preserving cultural heritage was at the forefront of the sessions addressing the digital preservation of HBCU collections with the HBCU History and Culture Access Consortium, the richness of Gullah Geechee culture preserved as digital treasures, and the preservation of physical spaces within communities of color and historical sites. This directly aligns with research we have conducted on DEAI work within the art museum space, including the 2022 Mellon Staff Demographic Survey, the 2022 Art Museum Director’s Survey, and the BTA Trustee Survey. Our recent collaborative project with Cave Canem has also allowed us to deeply engage with Black literary arts service organizations, focusing on organizational sustainability, community involvement, and the resilience essential for thriving amid challenging socio-economic circumstances.
In addition to curating an array of engaging sessions, the conference organizers also acknowledged the commemoration of 50 years of hip-hop and the significant African American impact on the music landscape of the United States. A compelling panel discussion highlighting the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago featured ragtime artist and MacArthur Genius fellow Reginald Robinson alongside guest curator and legendary rapper Roxanne Shanté. Their dialogue offered an in-depth look into the transformative effect living in housing projects had on their own lives as well as on the evolution of music in the nearly 100 years since public housing projects first opened in the 1930s. Additionally, the conference featured a closing plenary, curated by Grammy-nominated rapper, educator, and philanthropist, Dr. Yolanda “Yo-Yo” Whitaker, alongside singer/songwriter Lil’ Mo. They openly discussed the challenges and triumphs they have encountered as women navigating the intricacies of the music industry. The conference closed with a highly anticipated concert with performances by Yo-Yo, and Lil’Mo, and was hosted by Grammy award-winner DJ Kid Capri, celebrating the role of music and cultural heritage. It was definitely a conference to remember, and I eagerly anticipate attending the AAAM conference in Baltimore next summer.