Facetime: Curating History
Michelle Joan Wilkinson ’89 is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She works on projects related to contemporary black life, including developing the museum’s collections in architecture and design. Wilkinson talks about her recently curated symposium Shifting the Landscape: Black Architects and Black Planners, 1968 to Now.
How did you become interested in architecture?
Shortly after I was born in Brooklyn, I went to live in Guyana, South America, in a house that my grandfather built. My memories are quite vivid from even the young age of five. So, when I moved back to Brooklyn, the landscape and architecture of Brooklyn, of the whole city, were really different from my surroundings in Guyana. I became conscious of what buildings looked like.
You recently curated a symposium, Shifting the Landscape: Black Architects and Black Planners, 1968 to Now. Why start at 1968?
It was a year of social upheaval, assassinations, a lot of devastation. It was the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also in the midst of the civil rights movement and the rise of the Black Power era. Issues of race, injustice, and unequal treatment were part of the national conversation. And, in 2018, those conversations are continuing. The things that were being fought for then are still issues, and not all of those things have been achieved.
Can you tell us a bit about the symposium?
The symposium brought together architects and planners active in the last 50 years to look at some of the shifts that happened around 1968. That year, Whitney Young, who was a civil rights leader and head of the National Urban League, gave a speech to the American Institute of Architects, calling for more diversity in the field of architecture. He said that, as cities were being destroyed, African Americans needed to be better represented in fields that were rebuilding cities, fields that had been very exclusive to white Americans.
How do you see your role as museum curator?
One of my roles is to build collections related to architecture and design. It is a new way of looking at how the museum will tell the story related to black architects and black design professionals. Design touches every part of our life. Design can become invisible because it is everywhere. One of the things we know is that particularly the work done by African Americans has been invisible for too long and not always valued.
How does design help tell part of the African American story?
It is really important that, at this museum, we are able to talk about the history of exclusion and the impact design has had on African American life, whether that is in the way people lived in the area of slavery or the spaces they had access to or not. Those were by design. I want us as a museum, to uncover some of these places, where there are stories to be told. By bringing in collections by black architects and objects by black designers, I think we are able to provide a fuller picture of the ways African Americans have made contributions to American history and culture.