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"Musical Crossroads": Tammy Kernodle's behind-the-scenes experience with the newest Smithsonian museum

By Tammy Kernodle

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The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC).

When President Obama dedicates the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture this weekend, we will witness history in the making.

When a museum chronicling the experiences of Africans in America was first conceptualized in 1915, few could have dreamed that an African-American man would be elected as president. For me, the opening of this museum is very personal as it represents my life coming full circle. 

My love for all things history developed during grade school trips to the Smithsonian.  Washington, D.C. was only a few hours from my hometown of Danville, Va., but those bus rides felt like I was traveling across the world. While my friends ran all around the National Mall, I went through all the museums. The Museum of American History was my favorite.  I could not get enough of all of the artifacts, the history and Horatio Greenough’s controversial sculpture, “Washington Enthroned.” 

So when I received a letter in 2012 inviting me to serve as a scholarly consultant to the inaugural music exhibit for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I could not believe it. That summer I began working with a team headed by Dwandalyn Reece, the museum’s curator of Music and Performing Arts. The goal was to construct the exhibit called “Musical Crossroads.” 

The experience in a word was surreal and at times challenging. The challenges were primarily related to the difficulty in determining the content of the exhibit. How do you tell the story of the vast and layered history of black music-making in America from 1619 to present in a limited amount of space? After all, when you consider all of the facets of African-American music, that historical narrative could fill the entire foot space of the museum.

For me, it meant looking at this historical narrative differently. Unlike journal articles and books, the limited space of a museum and the general audience it serves requires that one work from a different methodological approach. One has to be able to present the sometimes complex and insular language of music and its various subcultures in a fashion that the general public will understand.

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Tammy Kernodle (photo by Scott Kissell)

You also have to determine how the visual, historical and auditory narrative is going to develop as the visitor walks through the space. Several questions arose in the process:  Does one structure the exhibit according to musical style or genre classifications or do we create an experience that’s centered around key historical events? Do we focus on canonical figures like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Duke Ellington or Billie Holiday or include lesser known musicians and industry figures that were active in particular regional scenes?

Reece’s vision was that we explore all of these; that the exhibit be as inclusive and diverse as possible. My role was simply to work within her vision to ensure historical accuracy and breadth. I have no doubt visitors to the museum will be amazed by the collection of artifacts, sounds and images that encompass the “Musical Crossroads,” as it reveals all of the diversity that has defined black music-making in America.

Tammy Kernodle is a professor of musicology and affiliate faculty of American studies, black world studies and women, gender and sexuality studies at Miami University. She also serves as media editor of Jazz Perspectives, an international peer-reviewed journal entirely devoted to jazz scholarship. Among other books she is associate editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of African American Music.