Smithsonian Names Kevin Young as Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, will become the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, effective Jan. 11, 2021. He succeeds the founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is now the Secretary of the Smithsonian.
Young is best known as a poet, author, essayist and editor. He has written 11 books of poetry, two works of nonfiction and is the editor of 10 other works including a new book coming out this fall, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song. He has been the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research division of the New York Public Library, since 2016 and is also currently the poetry editor at The New Yorker magazine. Founded in 1925 and named a national historic landmark, the Schomburg Center is a focal point of Harlem’s cultural life with extensive collections of art and artifacts, reference works, rare books and archives, photography and recordings.
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,” Bunch said. “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.”
During his four-year tenure as director of the Schomburg Center, Young secured several high-profile acquisitions, including the Harlem-based archives of Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Sonny Rollins and Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite and the manuscript of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, including a once-lost chapter. In addition to raising $10 million in grants and donations and raising attendance by 40 percent, Young enhanced the entire profile of the Schomburg Center, developing the “Home to Harlem” initiative, the new Schomburg Center Literary Festival and continuing the popular Black Comic Book Festival. Recently, while closed for the pandemic, the Schomburg Center developed a Black Liberation Reading List with 95 books and affiliated programs.
“I cannot sufficiently thank my longtime friend and colleague, Spencer Crew, for stepping in as interim director,” Bunch said. “We enticed him to take a break from teaching to curate the inaugural ‘Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom’ exhibition that is central to the museum’s mission. During his time at the helm, Spencer deftly helped the museum transition to a digital experience. The Smithsonian and I are forever grateful for his brilliant contributions.”
“I look forward to directing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in this next phase of leadership, after its founding, opening and dynamic exhibitions and events,” Young said. “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.”
“At this moment in our nation’s history, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is exactly what America needs,” said Ken Chenault, chair of the museum’s council. “Since opening, the museum has been a place for people to come together, find inspiration and foster reconciliation. Kevin’s reputation as an innovative leader makes him the ideal person to lead the museum into its next chapter and help us grapple with our racial history.”
Before joining the Schomburg Center, Young was the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory University in Atlanta where he taught for 11 years. He also was the curator of Emory’s Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a 75,000-volume collection of rare and modern poetry, and curator of literary collections. He has produced a wide range of poetry and cultural criticism, including two non-fiction books, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News (Graywolf Press, 2017), longlisted for the National Book Award, and The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press, 2012), which won the PEN Open Book Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book.
Among his 11 books of poetry are Most Way Home: Poems (William Morrow, 1995), Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf, 2003), To Repel Ghosts (Knopf, 2005), To Repel Ghosts: remix (Knopf, 2005), Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995–2015 (Knopf, 2016) and Brown: Poems (Knopf, 2018). He is also the editor of nine volumes, including The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing (Bloomsbury, 2010) and the anthology to be published this fall, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song (Library of America, 2020). Book of Hours: Poems (Knopf, 2014) won the 2015 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets—a prize that recognizes the most outstanding book of poetry published in the U.S. that year.
Young earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard College in 1992, held a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University (1992–1994) and received his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Brown University in 1996. A former Guggenheim Fellow, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016 and was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He will remain director of the Schomburg Center until the end of the year.
About the National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened Sept. 24, 2016. The long-awaited museum continues to attract an unparalleled level of public interest and has welcomed more than 7 million visitors since opening. Located next to the Washington Monument, the 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural center devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American experience.
The museum opened with 12 inaugural exhibitions, and has since presented four temporary exhibits, including the popular “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” and, most recently, “We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I.” The museum has a collection of more than 37,000 objects, with about 3,000 on display. Highlights include artifacts belonging to Harriet Tubman, including her shawl and hymnal, Emmett Till’s casket, a slave cabin from Edisto Island and a Jim Crow-era railroad car.
In its first four years, NMAAHC offered a robust calendar of public programs and event series, including film screenings, movie premieres, book tours, musical performances and panel discussions. In 2018, the museum launched the Smithsonian African American Film Festival, a multi-day festival celebrating African American visual culture and film.
The museum has more than 10,000 digitized objects and collection stories online. While closed beginning March 14 for the pandemic, the museum continued to publish online educational content, including the “Talking About Race” website, online Juneteenth program, virtual Community Day and March on Washington digital resources. The museum reopened to the public with free online passes Sept. 18.
The Search Process
The search committee was established in fall 2019 and was assisted by the executive search firm of Spencer Stuart. Committee members were Princess Gamble, assistant director of advancement at NMAAHC; Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and acting Under Secretary for Museums and Culture; Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery; and Elizabeth Alexander, Edith Cooper, retired Gen. Colin Powell, Ruth J. Simmons and H. Patrick Swygert, all members of the NMAAHC Advisory Council.
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Linda St. Thomas