Interviewed by Susan Straight
September 30, 2020
Renowned historian and museum director Dr. Spencer Crew is serving as interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) during the search for a successor to Lonnie G. Bunch III, who was appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian. Crew is currently on leave from his position as Clarence J. Robinson Professor of American, African American, and Public History at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. His extensive background in museums includes 20 years at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History—including nine years as its director—and six years as president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a historian and exhibition designer, he is particularly known for his work on African American and public history about the Underground Railroad and the migration of African Americans to the northern United States during and after World War I.
You’ve worked at the intersection of social justice and museums for much of your career. In what ways are museums particularly effective at moving the needle towards a more equitable society?
Most of my work has been in history museums. Our role is to provide perspective and background information so people understand where today’s social justice and equity activities fit into a larger spectrum of activity in the United States. I think our task is to provide that kind of information and inspiration for individuals interested in social justice. It’s important work that needs to be done for our country, and it’s good for people to know that there are many people—of all kinds of backgrounds—looking to work towards social justice as well.
How can museums and cultural institutions move the ball forward on social justice issues?
I think the way museums can move that ball forward on social justice is through our exhibitions; online activities that encourage people willing to communicate with each other about these tasks; and by making sure that stories are captured and kept for the future for future scholars and those who want to learn more about what took place during this time period. In addition, we do programming that encourages conversations and learning about social justice issues challenging our society. We want to provide an environment where good conversations can take place so that people can learn from each other about what they can do to make the world much closer to how we’d like it to be.
NMAAHC has implemented the NMAAHC STEM Education Initiative. Can you tell us more about that?
Our focus is trying to reach teachers and students who may not see science and STEM careers as something that pertains to them, to provide teachers with in-service information, and to expose students to role models that they can emulate.
What would you like to see in terms of increased science engagement through the NMAAHC STEM Education Initiative?
We’d like to expand our program so that we can do more work in this area—including through online activities. We’ve had wonderful things happening inside the museum but we want to make sure our reach is even broader. We want to make sure that teachers and students across the country can get that exposure and get more interested in STEM-related activities and jobs.
What lessons can you share for working with under-represented communities to tell significant stories that have previously been left out of museums?
One of the things we’ve tried to do is to expose children to the astronauts, including those of different backgrounds, because they are high profile individuals and are admired a great deal. By exposing children to the variety of people who are astronauts provides them with examples of what’s possible, as well as potential STEM career pathways.
What’s your favorite science center or museum—or what’s the last one you visited and what observations would you share?
I like the Baltimore Museum of Industry. I think it’s an interesting museum where they try to engage visitors in scientific discoveries and activities. They draw visitors in with hands-on activities and get them excited about science and thinking about their own futures.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture has reopened to the public. Check here for tickets and other information.