Collected: Stories of Acquisition and Reclamation

Fore’ n’ Aft Souvenir Book, May 21, 1943. Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum. Image courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora.

More a thoroughfare between the institutional offices and educational spaces than destinations, the second and third floor galleries at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) can be, at times, unforgiving display spaces. Nevertheless, as an institution, MoAD consistently presents exhibitions that expand one’s notions of race and identity. One need only to look at last year’s “African Continuum: Sacred Ceremonies and Rituals,” which contrasts with a more recent Richard Mayhew monograph: two exhibitions tenuously and productively held under the cultural umbrella of African Diaspora—or more pointedly, black visuality.

Langston Hughes, "The Weary Blues," 1926. Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias. From the Collection of Alden and Mary Kimbrough. Image courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora.

In promotional material, MoAD is described as “presenting the rich cultural products of the people of Africa and of African descendant cultures across the globe.”  To be clear, this includes all Lucy’s progeny. To drive this point home, guests are asked both in a digital tour and in the writing on the walls, “When did you discover you are African?” “Collected: Stories of Acquisition and Reclamation,” MoAD’s current exhibition, includes selections from three collections: the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, the Melvin Holmes Collection of African American Art and the Collection of Alden and Mary Kimbrough. Although each of these collections are distinct, much of what is displayed is Black Americana from the 19th and 20th centuries, including movie posters, paintings, signed first editions, an antebellum estate mortgage and ragtime sheet music. A really exceptional Charles White drawing, The Open Gate (1948), depicts a young black man standing before an open-metal gate; true to White’s practice, the figure and entrance allude to America’s postwar atmosphere—longed for opportunity at the cusp of change. In the second floor gallery are several film posters from both lesser-known independent cinema—1948’s Miracle in Harlem—and the classics, such as Carmen Jones (1954) and St. Louis Blues (1958). Here, Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt hum, projected on a wall for a room of empty office chairs.

Charles Borel-Clerc, French (1879–1959). "Zambesi Dance," 1912. Arr. by Carl F. Williams. From the Collection of Alden and Mary Kimbrough. Photo by Myles L. Collins, courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora.

“Collected” is an exceptional accumulation of objects, but the mandate to “better understand the cultural impact of these objects,” may have been missed. Curatorial consultant Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins based selections on the professed social or cultural significance of said objects without complicating questions of why, for whom, and what they might mean in contemporary communities—questions that are critical in a contemporary exhibition on collecting. Further, both what is seen as significant, and the collectors that shape the narratives around the objects in “Collected” smack a bit of dated class privilege (a nod to W.E.B. Du Bois, whose writings are included in the exhibition), which unfortunately goes unaddressed. Still, go see “Collected.”  The value of seeing a work by Bob Thompson, or the palpable excitement one feels finding Phyllis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral, signed by the author nearly 240 years ago, are undeniable and well worth the visit—however uncomplicated.

Phillis Wheatley, "Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral," 1773. From the collection of the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum. Image courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora.