Dorey Butter is understandably excited every morning when she arrives at work and sees people lined up for Washington’s newest attraction — The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Although the free timed tickets for the new museum have been reserved through March 2017, a limited number of same-day passes are distributed at 9:15 a.m. each day.
“We’ve heard of people coming as early as 5 a.m.!” says Butter, an Oakwood native who knows exactly what’s in store for those fortunate enough to be admitted. As the new museum’s project manager, Butter had the awesome responsibility of coordinating the movement of more than 3,000 precious artifacts from the museum’s warehouse to the spectacular new facility that opened Sept. 24. Those objects currently on display are part of the museum’s total collection of 36,000.
“It’s awesome to see people connecting with those things we’ve lived with for the past six years,” Butter says. Those “things” range from reconstructed slave cabins and Harriet Tubman’s personal book of hymns to Michael Jackson’s fedora and a vintage, open-cockpit biplane used at Alabama’s renowned Tuskegee Institute to train African-American pilots for Army Air Corps service during World War II.
WHAT MAKES IT DIFFERENT
What makes this museum so special, Butter believes, is a truly unique building as well as the manner in which the exhibits were curated and designed. “The architecture is stunning, visually arresting and not like anything else on the National Mall,” she explains. “The space is enormous! You don’t get that from a drive-by because 60 percent of it is underground.”
Although for many people the subject matter is not new, Butter says the manner in which it’s presented is definitely innovative. “We’re telling American history through an African-American lens and that will be new — especially for young people,” she says.
The museum’s lower galleries focus on chronological history, the middle floors emphasize community and the top floor centers around culture. In addition to 12 inaugural exhibitions, the 400,000-square-foot museum also houses an education and technology center, Sweet Home Cafe, a museum store, Oprah Winfrey Theater, a welcome center and orientation theater and a contemplative court.
“For me, it’s about the stories that the artifacts are telling,” Butter says. “You get bombarded visually and aurally — we have a lot of video and sound. For example, in order to enter the history area, you’ll go through a glass elevator that starts in modern time and then feels like you are going back in time. When the elevator doors open, you’re in the 1400s.”
While visitors are learning about the transatlantic slave trade, she says, they’ll also see what was going on in the rest of the world and how the slave trade transitioned from the trading of goods to the trading of people.
“We have extraordinary objects that were uncovered under the bed of the ocean — four pieces of ballast from a slave ship and a wooden pulley and piece of timber,” Butter says. “When you go through that Middle Passage space, it evokes an emotion of darkness and claustrophobia and you hear stories of people overhead. You experience what it would have felt like on a ship . It’s architecturally very cramped with low ceilings until the Revolutionary War, when it opens up.”
One of her favorite galleries is titled “Power of Place” and offers eight slices of African-American life in various regions of the country. Included are case studies devoted to the Bronx, the Mae Reeves hat shop in Philadelphia, Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, and Tulsa, Okla.
Visitors who’ve been coming to the museum since its opening, Butter says, often plan to spend two or three hours in the building but end up staying for four or five. “They become so interested in the content,” she notes. “There is so much here — whether they’re interested in music or sports or the military. And whether they want to learn more about African-American language or food or dress, or African-American contributions to Broadway theater, film or TV.”
YEARS OF PREPARATION
Butter, who just recently moved into an office at the new facility, has worked for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture since 2010. Prior to the official opening in September, she worked as a project manager for a preview exhibit titled “Through the African-American Lens” that was housed at the National Museum of American History and designed to get people excited about the opening of the new building.
A traveling exhibit “A Place for All People” is also designed to pique interest in the new museum. That show, a collection of posters, is currently on display at the Springfield Museum of Art. Ann Fortescue, the Springfield museum’s executive director, says one of the many benefits of being a Smithsonian Affiliate museum is sharing what’s happening at the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. with audiences in the Miami Valley.
Butter says many people don’t realize that objects don’t go into a museum loosey-goosey. “The curatorial team assigned to each gallery collects the objects that tell the story they want to tell,” she explains. “For years our designers and fabricators and curators have been looking at objects and trying to figure out the best way to tell the stories. Part of it is the way the things are placed in a case, part of it is how you group those objects. Part of it is the text the curators write.”
Installation of artifacts began in May. “Our colleagues at the warehouse include collection specialists trained in preserving and packing and back-end work,” she explains. “They do restoration and exhibition prep — cleaning and gussying up the objects and getting them ready for presentation.”
One important aspect of Butter’s job involved working with the fabricators creating the display cases.
“They would say ‘we’re ready to hand over these cases,’ and we would coordinate by gallery,” she explains. “We needed to know what objects would be in each case and how many objects a team might install in a day. I worked on an overall schedule to determine on what day what objects would be placed where.”
She was also the main liaison for what’s known as the mount contract. “The mount makers create the brackets, the hardware that holds the object in a case,” explains Butter. “These things are very precious. So a book, for example, may have fragile bindings so it can’t sit open. The mounts are made not to be seen. It’s been fascinating to me to learn how you make something look like it’s floating.”
GETTING THE “PLUM” JOB
Butter says the road to her current job, idyllic for a cultural anthropologist, can be traced back to two classes at Oakwood-High School — in archaeology and comparative religion. ” I fell in love with both and started college thinking I’d be an archaeologist or a rabbi,” she recalls. “I didn’t like all of the theory of archaeology so I also started taking cultural anthropology courses, which made more sense to me. Instead of relying on conjecture about why people did things certain ways, I could ask simply ask them, ‘Why do you do that?’ or ‘Where did you learn that tradition?’ “
She majored in International Studies and minored in Religion at Kenyon College, and spend her junior year abroad in Tanzania and South Africa. After serving two years with AmeriCorps, Butter earned a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology at the Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico.
“When I returned home, I found a perfect match working at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with the annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall,” she says. That “temporary” job lasted seven years and eventually led to her current responsibilities at the newest Smithsonian museum.
A week before the museum’s official opening, Butter’s mother and sister were invited to attend a Family Day and reception in Washington.
Bev Butter says none of the stories she’d heard about the new museum adequately prepared her for what she saw and experienced. “I was moved to tears by the beauty of the building,” she says. “I was overwhelmed by the breadth of the exhibits and the interesting and creative ways in which they are displayed.”
She loved seeing the work of African-American artists and sculptors and the costumes worn by famous singing groups and rock stars and was horrified to see the drawings depicting the living conditions the slaves endured inside the ship while in transit. “I will never forget seeing the large granite stone that slaves stood on while they were being auctioned off and imagining what the experience was like for them,” she says.
Unlike her experience at other museums, Bev Butter says she felt a strong personal connection to the humanity and history of people she had never felt before.
Her daughter says that’s the idea. She’s hoping that all those who visit the new museum feel a stronger connection to American history. “I hope they come away with a broader understanding of the African-American experience and how it can relate to their own life history.”
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