History Happens Now In Smithsonian Museum Of African American History 'More Than A Picture' Exhibit A new collection at the National Museum of African American History features recent, lesser-known photos alongside well-known images to demonstrate the historical significance of everyday moments.
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In 'More Than A Picture' Exhibit, History Happens Now

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In 'More Than A Picture' Exhibit, History Happens Now

In 'More Than A Picture' Exhibit, History Happens Now

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let me just take a minute to thank the people who were nice enough to fill in for me while I was away - Noel King, Stacey Vanek Smith and, most recently, Dwane Brown. And while he was here last week, Dwane Brown went to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. There's a new photography exhibit there which uses everyday images to tell extraordinary stories of history.

The exhibit is called "More Than A Picture," and it features more than 150 pictures from 80 photographers. The exhibit documents the lives of African-Americans going back to the era of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. There's a picture of a family of nine enslaved people on a Virginia plantation in the 1860s. And it's rare because the museum was able to identify the names of each and every family member.

There's a portrait of Lawrence McVey, a member of Harlem's Hellfighters, a WWI regiment of black soldiers. When white soldiers refused to serve in combat with black soldiers, the U.S. military reassigned this group to the French army, where they fought in French uniforms and earned top honors.

There are also several photos of 1960s-era civil rights marches. And alongside these, there are also photographs of more recent protests in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md. Curator Aaron Bryant says a lot of the photographs capture small moments that could easily be overlooked.

AARON BRYANT: This photograph that was taken on I think the 27 of April, 28 of April, in Baltimore 2015, and it was during the Freddie Gray protests. And in the image, what we see are these protesters who are linking arms, and behind them are police officers. So from the perspective of how the image was taken and how it's cropped, we get the impression that the protesters have linked arms in solidarity and they've turned their backs to the police. By - part of what this exhibition is about is perspective. What you see on the surface of the photograph isn't necessarily what the photograph is actually about. And Jermaine could probably tell us more.

DWANE BROWN, BYLINE: In fact, we have the pleasure of - Jermaine, you're going to identify as Jermaine Gibbs?

JERMAINE GIBBS: Yes, Jermaine Gibbs.

BROWN: All right. And so you took this photo. Give us a sense - because even as a storyteller, as a reporter, two reporters in the same place can tell a different story. Your job is to tell a story through the lens. This picture is told in different ways. What was your perspective?

GIBBS: Actually, I watched this before I actually captured it to see what exactly was going on. And what actually was going on was the crowd was starting to get out of hand because of the police presence getting heavier. So this group of men and a mother and daughter actually linked arms to separate the crowd from the police. So their job actually was protecting the police.

And that's what I wanted to show in this because a lot of people during the riots actually portrayed images of Baltimore being a rough and crazy place and everything was just going haywire. But my goal was to go at a different perspective and actually show the positivity that was going on. So when I seen this, I said, this is something that 20 years from now I can look back and say, yes, this is a powerful image.

BROWN: And speaking of perspectives, you set us up nicely because there is one of two photos of a young boy seen around police who are geared up. They've got their riot helmets on, got their shields. And they look - they look a little ominous. However, that picture in terms of perspective is not necessarily what you see. Talk about what was really going on here. Describe it for me, would you?

GIBBS: So it was probably about 10 o'clock in the morning, and the police was actually just coming up, setting up. But it was extremely hot. And some adults, they came out with cases of water. So the young man went over and asked, could he have one of the waters? But they thought he was just going to take it and keep it for himself. But what he did was actually walked over to the officer and handed the officer the water.

BROWN: What's the message here?

BRYANT: Well, you know, of course Jermaine has captured this young boy handing a bottle of water to a police officer. And this is in the middle of protests, right? So we get a very different sense about what people who are fighting for justice or communities who are fighting for justice, what that protest looks like. But protests happen in people's lives every single day, just like struggle happens in people's lives every day.

So this gesture of giving a bottle of water to the police officer is just a part of this boy's everyday life in spite of what we might think his life is like.

BROWN: In this past week, we've heard lots of rhetoric and different perspectives on what we see that went down in Charlottesville. And it makes you wonder, are we looking at the same picture? What can the listener or visitor to the museum take away from looking at pictures from the past as well as the present? And what's the takeaway?

BRYANT: Yeah. I think with these photographs in particular, as we look at photographs from, say, 1861 all the way up to 2015 with the two photos we just talked about, there are a couple of things that connect the past with the present and, I think, the future. What you see is hope and resilience. I think those are really important messages. In spite of how life has been confronted with all kinds of struggles or oppositions or barriers, people have continued to progress because they've maintained their hope and their resilience. And I think ultimately, that's the message of this exhibition.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Dwane Brown speaking with exhibit curator Aaron Bryant and photographer Jermaine Gibbs at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture here in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS SONG, "FLIM")

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