The Quanders are the rare African American family that can trace their ancestors to the 17th century. With several hundred members living in Maryland, Virginia and the District, the family has been featured in exhibitions at the National Museum of American History and the Anacostia Museum and profiled on the History Channel, and they will be represented at an upcoming exhibit at Mount Vernon.
But the Quanders won’t be included in the inaugural exhibitions of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening Sept. 24 on the Mall. Their exclusion is not a statement of their historical importance, nor is it meant as a slight.
“Our museum is built on individual narratives, but you’re just not going to be able to tell everybody’s story,” curator Nancy Bercaw said.
Museums regularly field inquiries from the public about what they include in their displays and what they leave out. But the Smithsonian’s African American museum is likely to face increased attention. African Americans have waited for decades for the institution to open, and as a result, their expectations are high. In addition, the 19th Smithsonian museum is charged with telling 400 years of history from a national perspective. To do this, it has chosen stories that are representative of the many individual tales from all corners of the country. For every tale that is included, however, there are many more left out.
“Everyone has a story, and those stories are all important. No one institution can preserve everything and preserve every story,” said Susan Schoelwer, senior curator of Mount Vernon, where an exhibition on slavery at George Washington’s estate opens in October and mentions the Quander family.
Ed Hines is a Quander descendant who wrote to Smithsonian officials last year after noticing that a Pennsylvania family was highlighted in a temporary exhibit at the American history museum.
“How can they overlook the oldest African American family in America, with a very prominent history through Washington, Maryland and Virginia? This is not something [if] you blink, you miss it,” Hines said.
Museum officials say they have a series of questions that help them to respond to the public. They begin by asking whether a story needs to be told and which institution is the best one to tell it. Other factors to consider include how much time is available to create, design and install an exhibition; the amount of space available; and the objects on hand that will illustrate its main points.
In the case of the Quanders, the African American museum had already planned and designed the exhibitions that would open the museum; even though the query came last year, it was too late for the inaugural displays.
“You might think adding one more story would enrich things, but sometimes adding one more — an object, a label — confuses things,” said Redmond J. Barnett, a historian and museum consultant from Tacoma, Wash.
In a series of letters, officials with the African American museum responded to the Quanders, noting the historical importance of the family and their inclusion in previous exhibitions. Their answers didn’t satisfy.
“We have been featured in the past, [but] that shouldn’t serve as a reason why we shouldn’t be included again,” said Rohulamin Quander, a retired judge. “I don’t want anyone to think for a moment that because we are Quanders, we are entitled. I recognize that others are entitled to have a turn and should. But when you’re opening a very important museum that’s been in the works for 100 years, it seems you’d want to put your best foot forward.”
Museums generally use three-dimensional objects to tell their stories, and their authenticity must be proved and the stories behind them unique. Often, curators who are approached by donors wanting to give a family heirloom will ask for the story behind it. Both the item and its story will determine its value, curators say.
“We’re like object social workers in some ways,” said Ellen Endslow, curator and director of collections at the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester, Penn. “There’s an emotional aspect to it.”
Sometimes a specific story will be included in an exhibition because the item that illustrates it is special. Usually, curators say, the piece speaks to a larger, more universal idea. That is the case in many parts of the African American museum. In one gallery, stories of farming communities in Indiana and vacation spots on Martha’s Vineyard are highlighted as part of a larger discussion about the importance and diversity of regions to the African American experience.
Curators at the African American museum crisscrossed the country several years ago, holding events in the style of “Antiques Roadshow” that asked people to bring their treasures for review. They added many items to the museum’s collection, and they encouraged many potential donors to give their heirlooms to local museums instead.
The story of a member of the Quander family, an enslaved girl named Nancy Carter, is part of an exhibition that will open at Mount Vernon a week after the Smithsonian museum’s grand opening. “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” opens Oct. 1 and examines the lives of enslaved individuals who lived and worked on the estate as well as George Washington’s changing attitudes toward slavery.
Schoelwer said Nancy Carter gained her freedom after Washington’s death.
“She is freed when her mother is freed in 1801,” Schoelwer said. “The final gallery connects the history of the 18th century to the present by looking at what happened to the families since.”
The exhibition is a timely companion to the displays that will open the new national museum, since it looks at slavery from a specific geographical point of view.
“Even when you’re telling a local story, a site specific story, we can only tell a small piece of it,” Schoelwer said. “The important thing is this is just the beginning. There will be lots of future exhibitions and future projects.”