Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture
Last fall, Steven Lewis, a doctoral student in Critical and Comparative Studies in the McIntire Department of Music, was one of the lucky ones to be among the first to experience the brand-new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. How did he get so lucky, you ask? He worked hard for it. Lewis was as an intern last summer at the museum and was hired as a research assistant to Dwandalyn Reece, the Curator for Music and Performing Arts. Lewis’s research and curatorial efforts found their ways into the fabric of the museum in countless ways in one of its most popular exhibits, “Musical Crossroads”, located on the 4th Floor. It is home to the story of African American music, celebrating music makers we know and many we don’t, and how, against the many forces that have long challenged a people and a nation and a culture, this music has infused and informed American music as a whole while continuing to be a voice for liberty, justice, and social change.
Lewis spent a year working for the museum, and in the process was able to put his personal stamp on a variety of elements and experiences – he did everything from creating playlists, to writing biographies and descriptions, to coming up with playlists used throughout the exhibit’s record store attraction, to perhaps his most important work on the comprehensive timeline that covers 14 genres and 400 years. “What we were interested in doing,” Lewis recently told UVA Today, “was not just focusing on individual artists, but talking about the stories of a community and the creativity that has come out of African-American communities.” The creativity celebrated there includes boldfaced names like Louis Armstrong, whose trumpet is on display, and Chuck Berry, whose Cadillac is parked there, and jazz greats like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, who graced the stage of the Harlem’s famed Minton Playhouse, whose neon sign is also on display. But it also takes visitors on unexpected routes of discovery that bring to light contributions by African-American artists in genres ranging from classical with Marian Anderson, to Thomas Dorsey, as the Father of Gospel Music and others who have made their respective marks on the worlds of country, folk and more. “It has been a privilege to be involved and to take what I do as a scholar and make it accessible to other people of color and anyone interested in African-American history,” Lewis said. “One of the key points the museum makes is that black history is also the history of all Americans. We are all heirs of this history.”