At the Crossroads: Dwandalyn Reece ’85 on Chronicling the History of African American Music and Performance

by Rachel Morrison

image of dr. dwandalyn reece

Dr. Dwandalyn Reece ’85 is the Curator of Music and Performing Arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

A century in the making, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) became the newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution in 2016.

Located on the National Mall, it has northerly views of the White House and is flanked by the Washington Monument and the American History Museum, situating it both physically and symbolically at the center of the country’s past and present.

Among the NMAAHC’s 12 permanent displays, ranging in focus from African American visual art to sports, cultural expression to slavery and freedom, is Musical Crossroads, which showcases the history, influence, and cultural role of African American music and perfomance. Scripps alum Dwandalyn Reece ’85 organized Musical Crossroads, and her novel approach to the museum-going experience makes it a highly dynamic and interactive space. The exhibition contains traditional museum objects, such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac Eldorado, and vintage concert posters. Yet it also has hands-on displays, recorded performances, and interactive pieces that foster relationships between viewers and objects, and among viewers themselves.

“If you think about it, there are so many daily interactions that are performative, and the museum is just another format,” says Reece, who is the NMAAHC’s curator of music and performing arts. “Once visitors engage with an object, that interaction becomes its own performance, so a museum exhibition is really its own stage.”

Reece also stages performance in more traditional formats for the museum, curating programs that feature live music, dance, spoken word, and drama. But at these events, too, where performer and spectator are often separated by the physical space of the theater—stage and audience—Reece sees the potential for something deeper.

“Music and arts are not just objects of study or creation, but acts that engage the world,” she says. Reece attributes her view of art to a course she took while at Scripps called Vienna: Music, Mirror, and Society, in which students studied classical music in its social and cultural context. “My knowledge of classical music as a singer before that course was that there was a score, lyrics, and composer, that it was an object,” she explains. But the music came alive when she learned that classical music is more than just a product; it is an artifact laden with influences, history, and cultural values.

“Thinking of art in terms of a subject-object relationship is a traditional way of looking at the museum experience,” Reece continues. “But there are myriad possibilities for museums to directly engage and enrich our experiences. It’s our own kind of theater, so to speak.”


Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Neighborhood Record Store is a replica of the type of shop that would have existed in neighborhoods across America in the latter half of the 20th century and aims to re-create the sense of community that flourished in these vestiges of America’s musical past.“There’s a narrative of record stores as safe spaces for African Americans. Customers talked about music with each other, radio stations did shows, artists did autographs; they were a key part of black communities,” says Reece.

Neighborhood Record Store has a digital touch table on which visitors can play songs or create playlists as well as read about the history of the music on display. Despite being 21st-century technology, Reece has found that it nonetheless fosters the type of interactions typical of a mid-century record store. “In that space, you have cross-generational dialogue. People are excited and engaged and encouraged. In that sense, it is a performative space of personal and collective engagement,” she says.


Shantung silk jacket (redesigned in 1993) and black velvet skirt worn by Marian Anderson, 1939
Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture,
Gift of Ginette DePreist in memory of James DePreist

Among the more than 350 artifacts in the exhibition’s collection are the original skirt and blouse trimmings of the outfit worn by singer Marian Anderson during her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial for a crowd of over 75,000. Anderson held her concert on the steps of the public monument because Constitution Hall had refused to allow her to perform on their whites-only stage.Though Anderson is best known for this performance, she had a long and accomplished career set against a backdrop of early civil rights advocacy that has often been overlooked. “Objects reaffirm but can also deconstruct how we engage with certain histories. I want to complicate her narrative beyond the 1939 concert,” says Reece. “She was one of the notable artists of the 20th century, a star in Europe, a diligent student, but her narrative gets lost in that one iconic moment. We need to see all the events that led up to the moment, and what transpired as a result. Exhibits and museums are key to presenting stories from diverse points of view.”


American musician Jimi Hendrix performs with his band, Gypsy Sun And Rainbows, onstage at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, New York, August 18, 1969. (Photo by Barry Z Levine/Getty Images)

No exhibition about music would be complete without a few legendary performances, so Musical Crossroads incorporates a Central Experience Stage to engage visitors on a large screen. One of Reece’s favorite videos is Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”“Here we have a towering figure at an iconic event, taking a national, traditional song and inflecting it with his own interpretation,” says Reece. “That performance is more than the sum of its parts: there’s Hendrix himself, the song, the reinterpretation,the statement about rock and roll. He made music not only to be enjoyed but that is laden with so much meaning. That’s what makes music and the arts so powerful.”


« »