More than a Picture: The Broader Historical Value of Family Photos

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First Day of Memphis Integration, Tenn.1961, is among the historical images in the collection. Dr. Ernest C. Withers/Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Nothing can match the power of photography to record your family’s story. Preserving your archive of photos has importance in a broader sense, too.

 

These moments of celebration, strife, and everyday existence capture our times for future generations and inform, even shape, what happens.



At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), private photos from all over the country have been gathered to tell the story of a collective experience by those who lived it.



The museum opened in Washington, DC with well-deserved fanfare on the National Mall in September 2016. The building’s stunning 37,000 square feet of exhibition space sits on one of the most prominent locations in the world. Assembling the collection it houses was a daunting and cooperative effort.


A team of curators scoured the nation for artifacts and photos documenting black history and art, finding many in individual homes, carefully kept in closets, basements or proudly displayed. The Smithsonian has, in the past, been jokingly referred to as “America’s attic,” a term that recalls a bunch of dusty junk. Curators at NMAAHC wisely chose to embrace the idea. The collection includes graduation photos of black leaders, candid shots of poetic greats and photographs of enslaved families.


In “More than a Picture,” an exhibition currently on view, 150 of these photographs have been selected and presented together to tell the story of black Americans from slavery through civil rights and the protests in Furguson, MO, and Baltimore in 2015. Seeing images of recent events alongside historical moments helps viewers recognize the connection and context between what happened in the 1960s and now.


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Miss America – Patriotic Gathering, Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, New York, 1940’s. Joe Schwartz, Folk Photography: Poems I’ve Never Written (2000), 16. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Joe Schwartz and Family

In an interview with NPR, Curator Aaron Bryant explained, “We wanted to help people to understand that history isn’t just in these objects that you would buy in an antique store, or at an auction like Sotheby’s or Christie’s. History is about everyday people and everyday lives. And you can find important significant cultural as well as historical objects right there in your home.”


It’s certainly something to consider when you look through family albums stashed away in a box collected from Grandma’s house.


 

 

 


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