Last September, the Smithsonian Institution opened its newest museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC). The celebration reached beyond Washington, D.C., to the city of Troy when Rensselaer presented “A Place for All People: Introducing the National Museum of African American History & Culture.” On Saturday, Feb. 18, Rensselaer officially debuted the commemorative 20-poster exhibition that will be on view in the Rensselaer Union McNeil Room throughout Black History Month.
In remarks to the audience, Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson noted that, “in 1835, the United States received a rather disconcerting gift—the entirety of the estate of James Smithson, a British scientist who had never visited the U.S.—in order that an institution could be established in Washington, D.C., for—in the words of Smithson—‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge.’”
The bequest was transported across the ocean in the form of 104,960 gold sovereigns. The U.S. Congress debated for eight years what the nature of the Smithsonian should be—a national university, an observatory, a basic research fund, or a library. Some argued that the gift should be refused outright, as insulting to our fledgling democracy. “Finally, wiser heads prevailed, and the Congress settled on the combination of research facilities, and art and science museums, that are the heart of the Smithsonian today,” President Jackson said.
“The Smithsonian, however, was founded to increase and diffuse knowledge to all—and, although it, internally, was not always welcoming to African-Americans, it served as a marvelous extension of my classrooms,” President Jackson said. “Its museums opened my eyes to the wonders of science and nature. As well, through its art and historical resources, the Smithsonian opened my eyes to the lives of people whose experience was different from my own.”
The Smithsonian, however, was founded to increase and diffuse knowledge to all—and, although it, internally, was not always welcoming to African-Americans, it served as a marvelous extension of my classrooms.”—President Jackson
President Jackson, who also serves as vice chair for the Smithsonian Board of Regents, noted that, “Without a serious examination of African-American history and culture, the Smithsonian could not achieve its great goal of “understanding the American experience.”
NMAAHC was established by an act of Congress in 2003, establishing it as part of the Smithsonian Institution, following decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African-Americans. It is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, history, and culture, Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson was one of several notable guests who spoke during the grand opening dedication ceremony for the museum.
Along with President Jackson’s reflective remarks, the Feb. 18 event included readings by Rensselaer students from the Black Students Alliance, Community Advocates, and RPI STEP; a viewing of the Smithsonian posters; and musical interludes by Ade Knowles, professor of practice in the Department of the Arts in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and the Roots of Africa Ensemble.
The event culminated in a reception inspired by the NMAAHC Sweet Home Café, including a meet-and-greet with President Jackson. The program celebrated the opening of the museum with the display of the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) posters that will be on in display in the McNeil Room throughout Black History Month.
“A Place for All People” highlights key artifacts that tell the rich and diverse story of the African-American experience. From the child-size shackles of a slave and the clothing worn by Carlotta Walls on her first day at Little Rock Central High School, to Chuck Berry’s Gibson guitar, Maybellene, and the track shoes worn by Olympian Carl Lewis, the exhibition presents a living history that reflects challenge, triumph, faith, and hope. The program was funded by the RPI STEP and United Technologies.
“Without question, the National Museum of African American History & Culture already has expanded and deepened our national story, and in the process, made this a greater nation,” President Jackson said. “It explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African-American history and culture. I am both proud and humbled to have been a part of its creation. I would urge all of you to travel to Washington, D.C., and to see for yourselves how utterly remarkable it is.”