Spencer Crew


Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Spencer Crew, named this summer as the interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has an impressive history of his own. The former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as well as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Crew GSNB’73, 79 is also a professor of history at George Mason University. If anyone was prepared for the monumental task of helming one of Washington, D.C.’s most popular tourist attractions and succeeding its popular founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, who was named the first African-American secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, it is Crew.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: Where did you grow up and go to college?

SPENCER CREW: I was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, and grew up on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, in a neighborhood called Woodmere Village. I attended Orange High School, which was integrated, and graduated in 1967. One reason I ended up at Brown University was because my counselor recommended that they talk to me. I played football and was a very good student. 

I played football freshman and sophomore year at Brown, but after that I got more into academics and other things. There was a walkout in 1968. African-American students pressured the administration to have more African-American teachers, classes, and students. And the history program just captivated me.

RM: How did you end up at Rutgers?

SC: I applied to many graduate schools and got into Rutgers, which gave me money. It had a good reputation, too. I entered the Ph.D. program and got my degree in 1979. 

RM: Were specific professors a big influence?

SC: Oh, definitely. My adviser was Seth Scheiner, whose big book was Negro Mecca, about African Americans and their impact on New York City. Ralph Carter, who was at Livingston College and a member of the faculty in its history department, was important to me. And so was Richard Kohn, a military historian. He got me to think about military history in ways I never thought I’d be interested in. But more important was his rigor and crispness and warmth as a historian and a scholar. I thought, “Wow, this field could be wonderful.”

RM: Did you focus on a specific aspect of history?

SC: I’m actually trained as a 20th-century African-American urban historian. My dissertation was about the migration from the South to Elizabeth and Camden, New Jersey, around the turn of the century. 

RM: Beginning in 2005, Lonnie Bunch oversaw everything as the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—the concept, the building, and the opening of the museum in 2016. What’s his legacy?

SC: He did a terrific job. You can see it in the quality of the museum—in the responses and reactions of people. He had a vision, and he brought that vision to fruition. Our task is to make sure this museum is as impressive as the one in his mind’s eye.

RM: As interim director, what are your major responsibilities?

SC: There is a natural set of steps every institution goes through, and change is part of that. So, I’ve been talking to the staff about what change looks like, what it means for this museum, and how do we transition essentially from seeing this as a startup that was focused on “We’re open and we’ve got these hard deadlines we cannot miss” to one that’s more in a steady state. 

Collecting artifacts is also important; they’re the lifeblood of a museum. We wound up with 3,700 objects, which reinforces Lonnie’s belief that the objects were out there; we just had to ask the right people. And now that we exist, we’re getting a lot more people offering objects. We have to manage that process. As the collection increases in size, we want to make smart decisions about what we include, because storage space, which is off-site, is not infinite.

RM: Is there an example of something you recently brought in and were able to put on display?  

SC: Probably the Black Panther costume; it went on temporary display. And so did the Emily Howland photography album, which includes abolitionists and the earliest known photograph of Harriet Tubman.

RM: Would you like to be the permanent director?

SC: Right now, I’m just trying to figure out what needs to be done immediately. I’m not thinking much further than that. When people ask how long it will take to find a new director, I say it could be six to nine months or longer. I’ve sat on selection committees where it’s taken a year or more. 

RM: Aside from having experience in various leadership roles, you’re also a professor of history at George Mason University.

SC: I took a semester off; I need to focus on this job. But I do enjoy it. It keeps me in contact with a generation of students’ thought processes and their view of the world. What I particularly like about teaching at Mason is there are a lot of first-generation students. And a lot of them come from other countries. The diversity of perspectives and thoughts is really intriguing.

RM: For Field to Factory, a popular exhibit in 1987 that you curated for the National Museum of African-American History, you included your family’s history, correct?

SC: It was an exhibit about the African-American migration from the South to the North during the period surrounding World War I. That’s precisely what happened with my family. The fun thing was the chance to actually interview my family as a historian as opposed to a nephew or younger cousin. My father, the youngest of 12, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but the family is originally from Pickens County, South Carolina, moving from there to Atlanta. The older children then moved to Cleveland. My grandfather and grandmother followed them later, bringing the younger children. So, my father grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. My grandfather worked for the railroad in Atlanta. In Ohio, he ended up being a small-business truck owner, among a variety of other things to earn money for the family. 

RM: You’ve written many books. How is that different from sharing history in exhibits?

SC: With a book, you can provide great detail about a topic or idea. With an exhibit, you don’t have that much space. Also, museum visitors are there because they want to see what they want to see. So, one thing you need to do as curator is create spaces that engage the visitor and to write in small, engaging chunks so that they’ll want to know more information. 

One thing Lonnie suggested—and I believe in strongly myself—is telling personal stories. Telling personal stories and making personal connections bring a museum to life. Visitors connect to them in ways that resonate. 

RM: A great example of what you are talking about is the exhibit Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968, which Lonnie asked you to curate. How did that come together?

SC: I had come back from Cincinnati, where I’d been director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and I was teaching at George Mason. Lonnie said, “I would like you to do one of the exhibitions.” The one he had in mind, since I had done Field to Factory, would cover the late 19th- early 20th-century period.

The biggest challenge was deciding what to include and not include. This museum had a good group of scholarly advisors, so the first thing I said was, “Tell me what things I have to make sure to address.” That gave me a spine, and with a spine the rest of it begins to flow. 

RM: You recreated the Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter, which includes a couple of sit-in stools.

SC: And migration. We knew that had to be a part of it. Also post-Civil War stories and certain individuals, like Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington, had to be in there. And for the modern civil rights movement, you had to include certain things—Emmett Till, for instance. His casket is one of the museum’s seminal objects. We knew we had to treat it in a very special, sacred way and make sure that the space for it was properly reverential. And the story is critical because a lot of people who were involved in the civil rights movement say Emmett Till’s death sparked them. 

RM: You were once quoted as saying history is an ongoing conversation.

SC: I think what we do as historians is continue to examine information—continually interpret it to see what it’s saying to us. It’s a changing process, in part because people bring different experiences to it and, in part, because our ability to use different kinds of information changes over time. The things you can learn from DNA allows you to think about things in a different way. 

RM: You mentioned the professors at Rutgers who influenced you. How about Rutgers itself?

SC: Rutgers influenced me to think about how to use and apply history. It’s in many ways a continuation of the professors I had. History can be a useful tool, a useful mechanism for getting people to think about the world of which they are a part and to bring a critical eye to it. 

We say at the museum that “history is complex and complicated,” and helping people to understand that comes from my exposure at Rutgers, encountering different professors with different points of view. They encouraged students to examine those views closely and to challenge them—not to accept things at face value. That’s what a good graduate program and a good museum should do.