Reviewed February 2021
Christine Davidian, Electronic Resources & Serials Librarian
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) Digital Resource Guide serves as a digital repository of the Smithsonian Institution’s newest museum which opened in 2016. The Guide’s stated purpose is to explore, learn, and engage with the museum through its numerous digital resources. It may be accessed as a standalone site or from the Explore option of the NMAAHC’s website. As an extension of a Smithsonian national museum that is free to all visitors, the museum’s website and Guide are also free to use. The Guide has no personalization features and does not require users to log in. It also does not require any special software add-ons to access any of its features and content. The Guide applies similar straightforward accessible user interfaces for mobile devices and computers, using universal design principles. This simplicity enables users to focus on the extensive digital content of the NMAAHC.
The Guide’s content, which is also available across the NMAAHC’s main site, is consolidated into six main sections. The first of these, The Talking About Race Web Portal, provides educational tools and resources to promote and facilitate conversations about race and explains why these conversations matter. Intended for educators, parents, and persons committed to equity, the portal addresses specific extensively researched topics of Bias, Being Antiracist, Community Building, Self-Care, Race and Racial Identity, Social Identities and Systems of Oppression, Whiteness, and Historical Foundations of Race. Throughout this section, pop-outs, videos, and embedded resources such as links provide additional content or resources pertaining to each topic.
The Online Exhibitions and Museum Centers section focuses on permanent exhibitions, past special exhibitions, and digital-only experiences. The permanent exhibit, Double Victory: The African American Military Experience, uses images, maps, and narrative to illustrate the active role of African Americans in the United States’ military throughout the nation’s history. Chez Baldwin, a digital-only exhibition, explores James Baldwin’s life and works from the context of his home in the south of France from 1971 to 1987. An interactive timeline of Baldwin’s literary achievements enables viewers to trace Baldwin’s literary career and life from 1940 through 1987.
The Digital Initiatives and Publications section of the Guide includes the NMAAHC Open Access collection, containing over 2,000 CC0 (Creative Commons 0) or “no rights reserved” items from the museum’s collection, that permits users to reuse and share the items. Some of the records for individual items include links to other objects “in this location” and museum maps to help users contextualize objects and understand collections and objects’ connections. This section also includes books published by the NMAAHC and African American Legacy Recordings from the African American Legacy Series, a collaboration between the NMAAHC and the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
The Guide’s Video Archives feature past museum events posted to NMAAHC’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. The YouTube channel features the NMAAHC Civil Rights History Project, a series of oral history interviews on the Civil Rights Movement produced jointly by the NMAAHC and the Library of Congress. The channel also includes several videos about Tuskegee Airmen History.
There are some drawbacks of the Guide, which pertain to navigation, discoverability, and consistency in naming. Since the Guide has no site map, users must intentionally scroll through each section to view the contents of its pages.
Inconsistently named sections add to user confusion. What is labeled “Talking About Race” under the Learn menu of the main site is listed as “The Talking about Race Web Portal” in the NMAAHC Digital Resource Guide. The naming of the Guide itself is also confusing. The Guide is listed as the “NMAAHC Digital Resources Guide” (plural) on the website but “NMAAHC Digital Resource Guide” (singular) on its landing page. These issues give the impression that the Guide is a work in progress. This feeling is reinforced by the survey offered to users while on the site that indicates the Museum’s willingness to improve the site. Despite these minor limitations, the NMAAHC Research Guide’s original and rich content covering various aspects of African American history and culture far outweigh any shortcomings.
The NMAAHC Research Guide’s highlighted collections, images, bibliographies, and digital assets, are strongly recommended for anyone interested in exploring African American history and culture.