Community Voices

African-American museum professionals convene in Miami

The 2017 African Diaspora Museum Conference. From left: Joanne Hyppolite, curator of Smithsonian NMAAHC; Deborah Mack, associate director for strategic partnerships at Smithsonian NMAAHC; Sherene James-Williamson, president of Museums Association of the Caribbean; and Brian J. Carter, board president of Association of African American Museums.
The 2017 African Diaspora Museum Conference. From left: Joanne Hyppolite, curator of Smithsonian NMAAHC; Deborah Mack, associate director for strategic partnerships at Smithsonian NMAAHC; Sherene James-Williamson, president of Museums Association of the Caribbean; and Brian J. Carter, board president of Association of African American Museums. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Deborah L. Mack is a consummate museum professional and mentor.

As the associate director for strategic partnerships at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), she is responsible for planning, management, and coordination of professional partnerships’ international activities.

Dorothy Fields 3761e (3)
Dorothy Jenkins Fields

With Mack’s mentorship, the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC hosted the Museums Association of the Caribbean (MAC)’s 28th Annual General Meeting and Conference recently in Miami.

“The Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP), within NMAAHC, is mandated to establish strategic alliances that promote capacity building, organizational sustainability, professional development and institutional best practices for African American and African diaspora museums and related heritage institutions,” Mack said.

The conference brought together more than 100 professionals from African American and Caribbean museums, archives, libraries, academia and cultural organizations.

Represented were Martinique, Suriname, Belize, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Barbados, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Aruba, the United States, Scotland, the Netherlands and Canada. Unfortunately, the hurricanes that preceded the conference had an impact on attendance.

The chosen destination for the inaugural conference, Miami, was described by the organizers as “a cultural gateway that provides a location for gathering conferees from the U.S., Caribbean, and locales across the Western Hemisphere.”

Brian J. Carter, the president of the Association of African American Museums (AAAM) agrees. Visiting Miami for the first time, he was impressed with the institutions and individuals committed to the preservation of African-derived cultures. He recalled how the movement began with Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum in Chicago, and Dr. Charles L. Wright, founder of the Museum of African American History in Detroit. In the 1960s, they led a series of conferences for black museums from which AAAM evolved.

Since then, AAAM has collaborated with institutions throughout the United States, including the John Heinz Museum in Pittsburgh and The Black Archives and Historic Lyric Theater in Miami.

The reach to international museums and cultural institutions was facilitated by Mack through the Smithsonian’s Office of Strategic Partnerships in conjunction with AAAM.

Sherene James-Williamson, president of MAC, is excited that these two leading organizations collaborated with her board for the first time outside of the Caribbean. According to James-Williamson, holding a conference in the United States “is moving MAC into a new paradigm.”

The conference theme, “Breaking Boundaries: Transcending Geographics, Discipline and Identities,” explored connections between museums and cultural institutions and their audiences across vast geographic spaces.

MAC events and plenary sessions were held at several cultural institutions throughout South Florida. Two sessions featured primarily local participants.

Professor Donette Francis of the University of Miami moderated the The Director’s Plenary: Miami’s Museum Landscape. Panelists were Joel Hoffman, director, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens; Ellen Salpeter, director, Institute of Contemporary Art Miami; Franklin Sirmans, director, Pérez Art Museum Miami; and Jorge Zamanillo, director, HistoryMiami Museum.

The Miami MoCAAD Plenary explored literal and figurative connections between artists and the arts of the global black diaspora. Attorney Marilyn Holifield moderated the panel, which included professor Keshia N. Abraham, Florida Memorial University; professor Alejandro de la Fuente, Harvard University; Marlon Hill, attorney; Willie Logan, CEO, Opa Locka Community Development Corp.; and Rosie Gordon-Wallace, founder & curator, Diaspora Vibe.

Conference highlights included a kickoff tour of Miami’s historic Caribbean and African-American neighborhoods, a welcome plenary featuring MAC founder and director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, Alissandra Cummins, and a closing plenary session featuring NMAAHC’s Deborah Mack and curator Joanne Hyppolite.

Prior to joining the Smithsonian, Hyppolite, MAC program chair, was the chief curator at HistoryMiami Museum from 2008 to 2014.

Reflecting on the 2017 conference Hyppolite wrote, “NMAAHC, AAAM and MAC came together out of shared interests in the professional development of museums and museum professionals in their individual region and left inspired by the possibilities of joining together in their efforts to meet the needs of their unique constituents.”

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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