Is a museum made for the extinct? Or for those trying not to end up that way?
We often think of museums as preserving antiquities—a memory, a tribute to those who have gone before. And it is true that if we don’t give importance to the things of the past, we cannot understand where we come from, or why we act or think the way we do today. But a museum is not merely a history lesson, something distant from our present. A museum must extend beyond its walls and exhibits, becoming a living thing inside our families and our communities—a living monument to a people striding forward into the future.
One of the highlights of my past few months was the opening of the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian’s newest museum and one that celebrates the whole history and experience of African American culture.
It is a vast, comprehensive museum. But I was struck by the way it also highlighted smaller individual contributions rather than focusing on the most important achievements alone. For example, the exhibit on education struck a chord with me, given my own experience with obtaining an education as an immigrant and a Black man. The exhibits showed the individual sacrifices made to gain access to education—the small tables with books, the limited resources, the determination to achieve. Many people—most people—we will never read about in history books, but their contributions together brought achievement to all.
It is so easy in looking back at our own lives and cultural traditions to pinpoint the highest achievements, the biggest traditions, and the most lavish celebrations. But we cannot truly understand our history and our community until we take a broader view. Each of us has our own small stories, thoughts, memories, rituals—individually they might seem unimportant, but together they allow us the freedom to grow with our understanding of who we were and are and someday will be.
What are your small stories, those micro-connections that help you understand your past and present? Do you find it more valuable to recognize big family traditions or smaller rituals?