Creating a museum exhibition takes time. Most exhibitions from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service take at least a couple of years to develop and build before they hit the road. In the case of Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth., the project team at SITES has been working on the idea since 2016.
We’re always looking for ideas for exhibitions. As we consider prospective topics, we seek something that allows us to explore a theme through a new lens—one that will engage and inspire those who interact with it.
We reflected on the successful national tour of our previous exhibition, Freedom’s Sisters, which paid homage to African American women who shaped the spirit and substance of civil rights in America. What if we turned the spotlight on African American men? At a time when authentic stories about African American men seemed missing from contemporary narratives, the idea seemed timely and important.
The SITES team—including staff with experience in exhibition storytelling, project management, object handling, packing and shipping, public relations and social media—began outlining the goals and story this exhibition would explore. The exhibition would provide the historical and contemporary context for powerful storytelling about African American men and share the strength and substance of their many contributions to our history and culture. We wanted visitors to encounter African American men—some known, others less familiar—who exemplify the positive qualities that have allowed them to succeed in the face of daunting societal odds. There would be a convening space that would encourage interaction and dialogue among visitors.
We assembled an advisory committee that included an array of African American scholars and intellectuals from academia and the arts to media and cultural organizations. Through multiple discussions with the committee, we sought to find an ideal cross-section of 20th and 21st century men who have influenced American history and culture in various fields, including business, religion, activism, athletics, science, and the arts. The advisors informed the exhibition narrative as well as the choice of men. The SITES team organized the exhibition around seven themes: storytellers, myth-breakers, fathering, community, imagining, loving, and catalysts. These would be the arenas in which we would think about the men we would feature in the exhibition. The men would be chosen not just for their success in any one field, but for their commitment to altering society, community, and culture in affirming ways. Decisions about which men to include were grounded in this vision.
Throughout the discussion, three names were at the forefront: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama. The SITES team and the advisory committee agreed that these men were towering figures whose legacies run throughout the exhibition, but that we needed to shine the light on others who may not be as well known. So many men were discussed, and it was difficult to finalize the list of who would be featured in the exhibition. Twenty-seven men are spotlighted as MEN OF CHANGE, but an additional 60 are reflected through images and quotes. Even more are represented by name within the exhibition to exemplify that no man is an island. All have found inspiration from their community and those who have come before them.
We tapped in the creative minds of Sarah Nelson Jackson and Jonathan Jackson of the design firm WeShouldDoItAll. They were tasked to design an exhibition that would be innovative, modern, and elegant. It would celebrate the proud quality and character of the African American community. The design required 3,500 square feet of space and needed to be flexible so that it can be manipulated to fit the various galleries of museums across the country that are hosting the exhibition.
In early discussions, the designers embraced the working conceptual vision of the exhibition as “installation art.” They suggested the inclusion of contemporary artists as part of the creative dialogue for Men of Change. It was an exciting idea and one that we incorporated. The exhibition team, together with the advisors and exhibition designers, compiled a list of contemporary artists whose work would reflect a diversity of art forms. We paired each artist with one of the MEN OF CHANGE featured in the exhibition and invited the artist to create an original work of art that would accentuate each of the men’s individual legacies while examining broader themes of masculinity, black identity, community tradition, and more.
Sarah and Jonathan’s response to the exhibition content and themes was to create a space that would be monumental. Their design features a tall, curving structure that provides open spaces to see through to the other sections of the exhibition. It’s a platform to showcase the exhibition content while removing the barriers of solid walls. It’s a pathway to explore the content, and visitors have open views to make connections across the themed sections. The storytelling is presented as a collage with excerpts from literature, historical quotes, images, lyrics, and poetry—most of it presented on backlit panels. The outer walls of the gallery feature the contemporary artworks. Together, these elements create a dialogue in a space that is at once modern and reflecting an African American aesthetic of call and response.
Once we got our first glimpse of the physical exhibition, it was important for us to get feedback from visitors. We wanted to make sure the spirit of Men of Change came through for those seeing it for the first time. When you’re in the midst of creating something, it can be hard to stand back with a critical eye. SITES worked with the Smithsonian Organization and Audience Research office to assist us in getting this feedback. Over the course of two days, visitors at the National Museum of African American History and Culture looked at visuals of the design and provided comments on the concept and themes as well as the design. Overall, participants were positive about the exhibition, using words like “powerful,” “motivational,” and “proud” to describe it. Many thought it was an impactful exhibition that presented a nuanced idea of black men. The feedback helped us as we finalized exhibition language and the installation.
Over the past year, we grappled with the words. We discussed the relationship between text and images, where they appear—high or low—in the gallery. We debated the exact height of the structural poles, and whether to reveal or hide the electrical wires that power the backlit panels. We built all the elements and lastly constructed the crates to transport this exhibition across the country. Now, we hold our breath. We know from colleagues who reviewed various aspects in development, and most importantly from visitor input, that we have a good chance of creating an impactful exhibition. Will visitors see what we hoped they would see? Will they be as moved by the men we selected as we are? The opening of an exhibition is a time of high excitement for staff. Like a work of art, we know there was something important we were trying to express. However, like all human expression, we understand that interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. We cannot wait to hear what you think.