Cultural Links: A Curator's Connection to the NMAAHC

It is a place already on the “must see” list of people from near and far. In less than a year from its September 2016 grand opening, the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) is known for the emotional impact it currently has as the most visited museum in the world welcoming more than 600,000 visitors. “People cry all over the museum,” says Joanne Hyppolite, museum curator. “A little bit of it is the emotional aspect of reliving history or visiting the history for the first time. Others are crying out of pure appreciation and pleasure.”

The depth of the gratitude visitors demonstrate for the new museum’s collection of almost 37,000 artifacts, documents, artworks and photographs is a humbling experience for Hyppolite, the curator responsible for the permanent Cultural Expressions exhibition on the 4th floor.

She holds a master’s degree in African American Studies and a Ph.D. in African American and Caribbean Literary and Folklore. Hyppolite got a taste for the idea of becoming a curator while in graduate school at the University of Miami. Being of Haitian descent, she did a project for History Miami that involved researching percussion traditions in Miami’s Haitian community. That sparked her interest in public history and the chance to do work that “would be available for people of all ages to see, consume, experience and enjoy.”

A passion for sharing history and culture eventually brought Hyppolite to NMAAHC where she is living her dream of connecting the bonds shared by black communities in the U.S., Caribbean, Africa, Central America and South America. “I can think of no better place where I can do that than at a museum like ours that is dedicated to the topic of black history and culture and serves a diverse constituency of people from many backgrounds and many ages,” adds Hyppolite.

The curators at NMAAHC spent years researching, acquiring and organizing items for the museum. One story that fascinates Hyppolite is how a boat seat from Ecuador became the first acquisition in the collection. It belonged to the grandmother of Juan Garcia Salazar. A spider web etched on the surface is representative of the Anansi folktales shared by people of African descent all over the world.

Preserving the boat seat was important to Salazar, and he shared stories about it while visiting the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch, III.  “He literally told him folktales. He had the boat seat with him and offered it to us for a donation to the museum,” says Hyppolite.

Inside the Cultural Expressions Exhibition, The Foodways: Culture and Cuisine, displays reflect the unique and diverse contributions African Americans and their ancestors have made to the culinary history of this country. They grew, harvested, caught and prepared food all across the U.S. Whether on the farm, in the kitchen or on waterways, blacks played a pivotal role in what people put on their plates. “We tried to display as much variety as possible so that people understand that African-Americans contributed to the development of many cuisines in different parts of the United States,” explains Hyppolite.

The red chef coat worn by Leah Chase, the queen of Creole cuisine, is on display as is a stock pot (pictured) from Washington, D.C.’s Florida Avenue Grill, the oldest soul food restaurant in the world. Hyppolite says it represents a lot more than a soul food restaurant that opened in 1944. “We wanted to tell that story because it is a story of mobility; the fact that southern African- Americans brought the tradition of cooking greens into the north and the rest of the United States when they moved out of the south in mass numbers as part of the Great Migration.”

Hyppolite continues to search for unique and historically significant items to add to the museum’s Cultural Expressions Exhibition. The hunt for a first edition printing of The Taste of Country Cooking by Chef Edna Lewis is ongoing and so is the effort to acquire things related to the professional career of Patrick Clark, a chef widely admired for his mastery of French cooking and contributions to New American cuisine. “Just one chef’s jacket would be great,” says the curator.

As for the future, the NMAAHC will unveil a photography exhibition in the spring of 2017. There are also plans for online and traveling exhibitions to expand the ways people can access the museum’s resources and the stories told inside its walls.

Visit the NMAAHC website for information about free passes to the museum or donating items to the collection.

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The joy of cooking became a part of her life when Phyllis was a child learning her way around the kitchen with her mother and grandmother. Her retirement from a demanding career in broadcast news has given her time to write about African-American chefs and restaurant owners as well as other black professionals succeeding in the travel and wine industries. Phyllis still loves to cook and try out new recipes.