Affectionately known as the “Blacksonian,” the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) came under fire recently after a Twitter user questioned the appointment of a white woman to curate the museum’s hip hop exhibit. The original tweet was in reference to Timothy Ann Burnside, a specialist in Curatorial Affairs at the museum.
What seemed to be a honest question led to robust discussion, with popular Twitter users such as #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign, Ferguson activist Brittany Packnett, and Grammy-nominated rapper Rhapsody defending her credentials and giving credence to her work as an ally. While a number of discussions surrounding Burnside’s position took place, it was clear the focus was not on her credentials but whether there was a Black person suitable for the role, especially since such positions are few and far between.
Issues of representation are not new to the museum sector (NPQ has reported extensively on this, and articles can be found here, here, here, and here.). Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Museum faced similar controversy after announcing the hiring of Kristen Windmuller-Luna to manage the museum’s African art collections. Decolonize This Place and other activists decried the choice, with Shellyne Rodriguez, who helped lead the protest, stating, “Diverse programming is not enough! It is cosmetic solidarity. The museum wants our art, our culture, but not our people.”
Essentially, Twitter commentators were questioning that same notion. In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackLivesMatter, and discussions of gentrification and cultural appropriation, issues of museum diversity, or lack thereof, has become increasingly common. In this specific instance, being that hip-hop originated in low-income Black and Latinx communities, people are questioning the reasoning behind appointing someone outside of a living, breathing culture as a gatekeeper, especially when museums have not traditionally catered to diverse audiences. What’s more, as one Twitter user so eloquently stated,
If hip-hop is a culture—not just a genre of music—then there are nuances that the people who created and lived IN that culture will know that others will not, no matter how deeply they study the content.
In response to the criticism, NMAAHC released a statement addressing concerns and supporting Burnside’s work.
The museum is shaped and led by a leadership team that is largely African American—and the staff is firmly grounded in African American history and committed to the mission of the museum. We value that diversity and also recognize the importance o