Accomplished Poet Kevin Young Named Director of Smithsonian’s African American Museum

Kevin Young, the new director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)

If you were dreaming up the perfect résumé for the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, you probably couldn’t improve on the one Kevin Young has built over the past two decades. After stints as a professor, curator and archivist, Young spent the past four years as director of one of the nation’s oldest Black cultural institutions, whose rich history informed the Washington museum affectionately known as the Blacksonian.

But Young is also an accomplished poet and writer — a fact that may seem disconnected from his museum work but that intrigued Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the African American Museum, who left that job in 2019 to become secretary of the Smithsonian.

“The museum is driven by words, so who better than a poet to lead it?” Bunch said of his handpicked successor. “That excited me.”

Author of 14 books, editor of nine more and poetry editor of the New Yorker since 2017, Young says his literary background definitely contributes to his work at the museum.

“The poet’s job is to make connections. Poets say, ‘This thing is like this other thing.’ And in fact, they say, ‘This thing is this other thing,’ making metaphor. As a museum director, I’m really interested in making meaning and helping people make those connections through what they see and what they experience,” said Young, who became the African American Museum’s second director in January. “I see that as almost a kind of lyrical connection. And if I can provide some of that lyrical leadership to what our new direction is, I think that’s really great.”

As an example, Young points to an early photograph of Harriet Tubman that is jointly owned by the museum and the Library of Congress. The power he sees in Tubman’s look is reflected in another new acquisition, Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor.

“That’s a really tremendous piece,” he said of the portrait, jointly acquired in March with the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. The museum plans to display it later this year. “It was the cover of Vanity Fair. It depicts her in a powerful way, and it sort of brings her to life and shows her, as Amy Sherald says, it gives her a voice in a really powerful way. I think that for me, that kind of connection across time and the ways that the portrait of Harriet Tubman is looking at you in the way that the Breonna Taylor portrait is, I think is something we want to really highlight for people.”

Young also brings a sense of urgency to the Smithsonian museum’s mission to connect history to the present.

“We’re in history now, and that history is a living thing, and understanding living history is, I think, really a big part of it,” he said about his vision. “Think about the art people are making, the conversations people are having. That’s where we can collect and connect and help people see the bigger picture.”

At 50, he’s one of the youngest Smithsonian directors and, like many of his generation, he is less concerned with hierarchies of culture and more expansive in his definition of it. Some of his favorite artifacts in the museum are found in its music, television and food exhibitions.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Peggy McGlone