Editor’s Note: Timothy Anne Burnside is the head curator for a new hip-hop exhibit set to debut at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Burnside is a curatorial museum specialist focusing on contemporary history and culture, primarily music and performing arts who has been curating the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s hip-hop exhibit since the museum opened over 2 years ago, but the revelation that she is white made news on social media last week, stirring up a heated debate about about who should have access to black spaces. NPR’s Michel Martin and Rodney Carmichael take a look behind the scenes of the controversy.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST: Every now and again, we like to check in on controversies playing out on social media – not because they represent some careful scholarly debate, but rather because these controversies seemed to tap into wells of sentiment that exist but don’t find expression anywhere else. So we wanted to talk about a debate that started with this tweet. Quote, “there is a white woman curating the hip-hop part of the NMAAHC Smithsonian” – lots of exclamation marks – who let this expletive happen,” unquote.
Now, NMAAHC is the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which opened with great fanfare in 2016 and has been wildly popular since. The hip-hop exhibit has been part of the museum since the outset. The reference is to curator Timothy Anne Burnside. And that tweet was met with many impassioned responses, both defending the curator’s credentials and commitment but also those supporting the critique. And that sparked a much larger debate about who should have access to black spaces.
We’re going to go to NPR’s hip-hop writer, Rodney Carmichael, to pick it up from there. Rodney, thanks so much for joining us.
RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Outline the debate a little bit more if you would about what it is that people are saying.
CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, like you said, when this conversation started a week ago, there were a lot of really high-profile personalities on black Twitter, ranging from rap artists to academics that, you know, Timothy Anne Burnside has worked with. And they all immediately came to her defense, vouching for her credibility as a curator. But then the defenders got called out, and it became this really heated conversation that hinged on race and class and how these distinctions really kind of play into who creates culture versus who gets to curate it, especially in America’s ivory towers.
MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about her qualifications, if you would.
CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, she has a graduate degree in museum studies. She’s been a curator with the Smithsonian for nearly 15 years, from what I understand. And she also launched the Smithsonian’s hip-hop collecting initiative a whole decade before the National Museum of African-American History and Culture even opened. So, you know, that’s time served cultivating the relationships that are really necessary to build the kind of archive that the museum can boast of now.
MARTIN: The critics are really aiming their fire at the museum, it seems to me, that they seem to be saying that African-Americans don’t have access to that many positions of this type, and therefore, this highly sought-after position should go to a – an African-American. That seems to be the gist of the argument, if I have that right. What is the museum saying about that?