History Under the Surface –The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s partnership with the African Slave Wrecks Project

Museums succeed at telling compelling stories and engaging their local communities in meaningful ways. However, museums have a role in telling their visitors about the research necessary to create blockbuster exhibits and the methodologies used to uncover displayed objects. This “insider” knowledge can inspire future scholars, curators, and archaeologists.

The staff of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) believes the methods and research behind exhibits should be transparent to visitors. [1] Scheduled to open in 2016, the museum has an opportunity to expand the scholarship of African American history, particularly in regards to the African Diaspora. Partnering with organizations conducting innovative research on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade strengthens NMAAHC’s ability to share untold stories of the harrowing journey. Recently, NMAAHC initiated a collaboration with the African Slave Wrecks Project, sponsored by the South African Heritage Resources Agency. The partnership developed as a way to sponsor research of underwater sites of African slave shipwrecks and promote scholarship of a topic that has not been fully explored.

The African Slave Wrecks Project began with the realization that little work had been done on wrecked slave ships. Initially, George Washington University and the National Park Service partnered with two South African institutions, Iziko Museums and the South African Heritage Resources Agency, to research the global passage. In 2008, researchers dug into archives to locate and document the archaeological remains of ships. Initially, the project focused on three wrecks off the coast of South Africa –the Meermin, Le Jardineire, and the Sao Jose. The Meermin and Le Jardineire have still not been found, though project researchers developed an extensive history on the shipwrecks from archival records. Researchers from the United States journeyed to Cape Town, South Africa for field research on the Sao Jose. The NMAAHC joined the partners in 2011, aiding the project by providing funding and promoting ongoing research. An entire section of the NMAAHC’s core exhibit will highlight the ongoing research and scholarship of the topics presented. [2] The African Slave Works Project will be presented along with other collaborative projects, such as the removal of a former slave cabin on Edisto Island, SC and the Goree Island Digital Repository.

According to Deborah Mack, Associate Director for Community and Constituent Services at NMAAHC, the importance of clearly presenting the research behind information in exhibits is two-fold. First, it gives credibility to the museum’s interpretation. This transparency shows how the museum answers big questions such as defining what the term African American means. Andrea A. Burns traces the black public history movement in her work From Storefront to Monument and shows how African American neighborhood museums have answered these questions. Museums like the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum presented the history of the African American experience that traditional history books left out. Though African American history is increasingly incorporated in not just ethnic-centered museums, but also local and national history museums, fewer objects related to the black experience exist and has been preserved compared to Anglo-American items. These underwater archaeology projects will help bring material culture and information to the surface, particularly related to the passages of enslaved Africans to the New World. Mack made the point that plenty of ship wrecks have been explored but until this project, few efforts have been made to find and excavate slave shipwrecks. The NMAAHC’s collaboration with the African Slave Wrecks Project shows a commitment to continued research in unexplored topics related to the black experience.

Secondly, highlighting research and methodologies shows the diversity of workers within the fields of history, archaeology, and the sciences. Just as the International Afro-American Museum insisted management be in the hands of the African Americans, this collaboration supports black professionals.  Additionally, it encourages young students of color to enter the field. [3] Black archaeologists are actively recruited to participate in the African Slave Wrecks Project. The National Black Scuba Divers Association works with the project to provide divers and trains young students in scuba diving and historical research. Through collaboration, these partners are creating a global network of young professionals and students trained in underwater archaeology.

Mack stresses the importance of “raising the field” through these collaborations. Working with unexpected partners and highlighting their research builds on the original ideas behind the black museum movement. Through exhibits and collaborations, the NMAAHC continues to expose the untold stories of the African American experience and empowers a global community to explore these stories.

african slave wrecks

[1] Deborah Mack, “Sustainable Practices for Co-Created Exhibits,” Panel, National Council on Public History Conference, Monterey, CA, March 20, 2014.

[2] “African Slave Wrecks Project,” South African Heritage Resources Agency, http://www.sahra.org.za/about/news/african-slave-wrecks-project.

[3] Andrea A. Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 32.


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