Director, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
“Our approach [at the National Museum of American History] was to begin to unpeel the variety of stories that make up the American story. There is a chance for visitors to learn something new, beyond their own circle of experience, and then connect it back to their own. Our task is to begin to illustrate the richness and complexity of history: that it’s not a singular story and that there is no one single truth. If people begin to understand the various pieces of information that go into the American story, it helps them to think differently about it. If nothing else, I hope that people leave here as critical thinkers.”
When Spencer Crew completed his Ph.D. at Rutgers University in 1979, his initial professional career goal as a historian was to teach in a university. After teaching for a few years at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he realized he wanted to reach a broader range of people. In 1981 the Smithsonian Institution had recently renamed its former “Museum of History and Technology” as the National Museum of American History (NMAH), and was actively recruiting people trained in social history. Crew was selected and initially went to the museum for a year, but he loved the work so much that he stayed on when his appointment was over.
After working with several teams to develop exhibits, learning about the variety of tasks and the variety of skills that went into the creation of a new exhibit, Crew had the opportunity after five years at the museum to become curator of an exhibition of his own. Field to Factory: African-American Migration, 1915–1940, drew on knowledge Crew acquired in his doctoral dissertation work on southern migration to New Jersey as well as on the experience of his grandfather’s migration from South Carolina to Cleveland in the early 1920s. Originally scheduled to be a temporary exhibit at NMAH, it has now become permanent.
In 1994 Spencer Crew became the first African American appointed as director of the NMAH, where he and his fellow museum staff reached an audience of more than five million visitors a year. In 2001 he left the museum to head up Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.