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Many Lenses, Many Perspectives: African American History Resources on the Smithsonian Learning Lab

Many Lenses, Many Perspectives: African American History Resources on the Smithsonian Learning Lab

by: Candra Flanagan, Coordinator, Student and Teacher Initiatives, National Museum of African American History and Culture

In her widely acclaimed 2009 TEDTalk, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of the danger of the single story. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” One of the most important skills a student of history (whatever one’s age) develops is “multiple perspective taking”--the ability to view history not as one story with one inviolate truth, but rather as a layered story with varying perspectives. These multiple perspectives give voice to the multiple actors within any historical moment and allow people to cultivate empathy and understanding as well as a sense of connectedness. Investigating the African American experience in the United States presents an opportunity to develop perspective taking as one understands a more nuanced version of history. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) created Learning Lab resources to give educators and students of history a place to locate resources related to the African American experience and to stimulate critical thinking through multiple perspectives. 

Middle and high school students can utilize the NMAAHC Learning Lab collections to supplement and expand the narrative of their historical research projects. For students participating in National History Day the museum has curated a collection of Smithsonian resources that highlight African American history related to the annual theme. Educators and students can explore the 2018 collection on Conflict and Compromise in History.

Another growing set of NMAAHC Learning Lab collections features the Many Lenses project, which brings together Smithsonian collections on a central theme or question. The practice of looking through “many lenses” reveals the multiple perspectives that different museums take in the study of material culture.  One of the stories on the Many Lenses website shows how certain post-Civil War African American army units referred to as “buffalo soldiers” are interpreted by three different Smithsonian cultural museums.  A companion Learning Lab collection allows educators and students to explore the myths and reality of these noted men.

Within the NMAAHC Learning Lab collections, you can also find ones that highlight particular moments in history, commemorate special anniversaries, or illuminate little-known content.  For instance, the collection on Martin Luther King, Jr., in the late 1960s provides content to help viewers investigate his focus at that time.  This Learning Lab collection can also serve as a companion resource to the exhibition, City of Hope: The Poor People’s Campaign curated by NMAAHC and on view at NMAH through December 2018.


Image: National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Alan Karchmer.