The Smithsonian Institution has announced that poet Kevin Young will be the next director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. With more than 37,000 objects, the NMAAHC in Washington, D.C., is the largest center dedicated to the African American experience in the country. Young succeeds the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, who was named secretary of the Smithsonian in 2019.
Young is currently director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, where he has overseen such high profile acquisitions as the Harlem-based archives of Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Ruby Dee and Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite. Among Young’s published works are 11 books of poetry including Jelly Roll: A Blues, which was a National Book Award finalist. He is currently the poetry editor at The New Yorker.
Opening the Smithsonian’s first national museum devoted to African American history and culture was a gargantuan, multiyear endeavor. Under Bunch’s leadership the museum raised $453 million and, since its opening in September 2016, it has attracted more than 5.5 million visitors.
So can a poet handle that kind of dedication to donor courtship, not to mention administrative bureaucracy? According to the Smithsonian, in Young’s four years at the Schomburg Center, he raised $10 million in grants and donations and raised attendance by 40%.
“Kevin will bring an exciting mix of scholarship, technological savvy and bold vision that builds on the foundational work of the many people who built the museum,” Secretary Bunch said in a statement. “As a poet, he understands how the museum fulfilled the dreams of many Americans, and under his leadership the museum will shape the hopes of future generations.”
The artifacts in NMAAHC’s vast collection span several generations of African American history and culture: a cabin that housed enslaved people on Edisto Island, S.C.; Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal; Emmett Till’s casket; and costumes from the Broadway musical The Wiz.
In a statement, Young said he looks forward to leading the museum: “Having visited the museum myself with my family, I know what a powerful place it is, transforming visitors both in-person and online, and revealing the centrality of African American culture to the American experience. I am eager to engage further directions in the museum’s mission, embracing our digital present and future while furthering conversations around Black history, art, liberation and joy.”