Collecting Today’s History

Alum Documents Events in Real Time for Smithsonian Museum
By Sala Levin ’10 | Photos courtesy of Jason Spear/NMAAHC; portrait by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via NMAAHC

Standing in the streets of Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death, and again in Washington, D.C., after the killing of George Floyd, two Black men felled by police, Aaron Bryant Ph.D. ’18 took in the scenes through an uncommon set of lenses: He was a historian, witnessing and experiencing history, and a curator, thinking about how to preserve the moment for those not there.

As curator of photography, visual culture and contemporary history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bryant’s job includes gathering artifacts of social change as it’s happening. As protests persisted last summer, Bryant spoke with people on sidewalks, browsed images on social media, and visited demonstration sites in their aftermath, collecting objects that encapsulated the event.

“I’m a part of the community as well as someone who wants to collect to represent the voices and the experiences,” says Bryant.

It’s not only the “No Justice, No Peace” signs that Bryant hopes to find. Items in the museum’s collection representing protests against racial inequality also include a Black Lives Matter T-shirt worn by Baltimore Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton and a rake used to clean up after the unrest that followed Gray’s fatal injuries in 2015; and a suit worn by a pastor in Ferguson, Mo., during the unrest sparked in 2014 by the police killing of another unarmed Black man, Michael Brown.

Championing the unsung is nothing new for Bryant; his dissertation at UMD on the Poor People’s Campaign, the 1968 movement for economic justice led by the Rev. Martin Luther King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, included research on then-little-known photographer Robert Houston. Bryant, “a very talented archives rat,” according to doctoral adviser and Associate Professor of American studies Mary Corbin Sies, unearthed the photos, which showed a human side to the political demonstrations and tent-building on the National Mall that few people had ever seen.

Bryant’s work, which eventually became the museum’s 2018 exhibit “City of Hope,” “completely made me rethink the Poor People’s Campaign,” says Sies.

Growing up in Baltimore, Bryant’s love of visual culture started with PBS documentaries, in which photographs and documents came to life through research and interpretation. His goal as a curator, he says, is for so-called regular folks to know that their belongings are valuable for what they reveal about each individual’s story.

“History happens every single day,” says Bryant. “We have to understand that our lives are part of a much broader narrative.”


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