For us by us: Redefining the African American Narrative at NMAAHC
Media relics have the ability to make us stop dead in our tracks. Videos from protests in the 60s make us feel like we can conquer anything that comes our way. Holding the yellowed and frayed Vietnam war photo of your grandfather, reminds you of the sacrifice he made to a country that wouldn’t even let him drink from the same water fountain as a white man. Old VHS tapes of you and your siblings playing soccer, remind you of a simpler time.
Rapid changes in today’s technology can make it seem impossible to hold on to these memories and keepsakes. But the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) defies that notion.
In an initiative entitled, The Great Migration Home Movie Project, museum visitors can bring in their old tapes and photos to be digitized or record an oral history, providing a soundtrack to these often silent videos.
On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2017, Walter Forsberg, a media archivist for NMAAHC, was a guest speaker for this semester’s final “Digital Dialogue,” held by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). Trevor Muñoz, interim director of MITH, describes the work that the institute does.
“We’re a group of folks interested in how can we use new technology to pursue the work that the humanities have always done, so investigating art, history, and culture or how can we investigate the art, history, and culture of the computer age,” Muñoz said.
The final “Digital Dialogue” discussed the media conservation and digitization efforts of NMAAHC. Forsberg began working as an audio-visual media archivist for NMAAHC in 2014. Ever since then, he has worked alongside four others to digitize and catalogue audio-visual media.
NMAAHC is different from the other 18 Smithsonian museums because its collection did not begin with a gift from one donor. As early as 2003, NMAAHC began building a collection to reflect the African American experience.
“We knew that we could build the brick and mortar of the museum,” Forsberg said at the beginning of his presentation. “But the real question was gonna be “Is this material out there, and can we tell the story with artifacts and other materials?”
NMAAHC opened with 37,000 objects with approximately 3,200 being audio-visual materials. Forsberg discussed the privilege of serving on the Collections Committee within the Office of Curatorial Affairs, describing it as a moving experience to see all the artifacts coming into the museum.
Forsberg detailed the hard, yet rewarding, work of searching for possible collection materials. Forsberg first contacted historical filmmakers and asked about the location of audio-visual clips used in the films. Once Forsberg had that information, he traveled to cities like Harlem and Brooklyn to take inventory of the audio-visual storage lockers. Even if the locker owners didn’t donate anything to NMAAHC, Forsberg knew his item inventory could lead to other opportunities for the storage lockers to be bought by someone else.
What was striking about Forsberg’s work with NMAAHC was the Robert Frederick Smith Family History Center on the second floor of the museum. Where visitors can conduct genealogical research, and the research center is also home to a media lab open to visitors.
“These are really important developments, Forsberg said. “That we were able to build this fishbowl display case type laboratory which everyone can see, on the Mall. Everyone who is on the Mall can come, ask questions, and we can answer questions.”
This media lab digitizes audio-visual media as part of an initiative titled The Great Migration Home Movie Project. Visitors can drop off their media, be it VHS tapes, 35mm film, audio reel tapes, etc. in the morning, and it will be digital by the time the museum closes. As I mentioned before, visitors may also record oral histories in the lab, providing a narrative to their media.
Visitors have the opportunity to be part of NMAAHC history by donating their home videos to The Great Migration project. We are all aware of the misrepresentation or lack of representation of blacks in the audio-visual media of the past. This donation aspect of the project redefines what is meant and means to be black in America.
These home videos demonstrate the intricacies and subtleties of black American culture: dancing in the kitchen, celebrating grandma’s birthday, children running in the park. These home videos assist in disproving and destroying harmful stereotypes.
For Forsberg, the work is rewarding because he gets to share in, what is often, a multi-generational exchange of history. Engaging with people on such a personal level, Forsberg likes to joke that the lab has a “66 percent cry rate,” when people finally get to watch their old home movies.
“It is really interesting to me, the way in which we can use technology, media archeology, digitization, and working with humans on a one on one basis, to rewrite history,” Forsberg said in an interview following the presentation. “That is just really powerful and really radical.”
The museum does not force its visitors to donate the original formats of their home movies. While a person may now have a digital copy from the media lab, NMAAHC understands what the physicality of an original copy represents. With these home movies, NMAAHC compiles them to create sizzle reels played throughout the museum.
During Forsberg’s discussion at MITH on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2017, Forsberg explained how the museum compiled home videos to share information with the public. One such video was created in July of 2017; this “sizzle reel,” as Forsberg called it, was about the segregation of beaches.
The work that NMAAHC has done is truly revolutionary and quite the act of public service. Blacks have a platform, and not just something like Twitter or Instagram, where we can bring our stories to life, through efforts of community preservation and representation.
Interested in learning more about The Great Migration Home Movie Project? Here is a link to the initiative, and if you’re so inclined, go ahead and schedule an appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.