Written by: Amora Campbell, 2019-2020 Real World History Student, Richard Wright Public Charter School, 11th Grade
The following post is part of a collection created by high school students in the 2019-2020 Real World History course. The course teaches history through inquiry, equipping students with crucial skills that prepare them to thrive in our complex 21st century world. In the spring semester, students typically complete a 100-hour internship at a historic site or museum but due to Covid-19, this year’s class was unable to do so. Out of necessity, the class transitioned to an online model and changed its focus. Instead of learning about public history work through internship placements, Real World History students conducted a series of online interviews with public historians to learn about their work. Recognizing the implications of the pandemic on institutions of public history, the students also asked their interviewees to discuss the short-term and long-term changes this health crisis would have on the field. Each Real World History student then wrote a reflective blog piece about their interview and the spring semester. We hope their unique insights offer readers a glimpse into the experience of high school students in the spring of 2020 and the inner workings of these institutions at a peculiar moment in history.
Hello, my name is Amora Campbell, and I want to write about my interview with the esteemed curator, Paul Gardullo, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. With the help of my Real World History classes, I was able to have background knowledge on DC history as it relates to Chocolate City. The class was centered around the Great Migration, which is the migration of African Americans from the South to the North around the 1940s to the 1960s. In the first semester we would study the book and how to correctly analyze historical material for our oral history project. Second semester is about finding an internship. I had Moorland Spingarn Research center at Howard University. However, in the middle of my studies at Moorland, Coronavirus struck and everything was closed down and adapted to virtual spring interviews for the end product of a blog post.
I was assigned to Dr. Gardullo by my teachers, Max and Mr. Hunt. To prepare for the interview I researched Dr. Gardullo on the Smithsonian website. He is the one of the curators at the legendary National Museum of African American History and Culture. Dr. Gardullo is presumably white, and, to be honest, I was surprised to see that a presumably white man was so invested in this museum. Although I’d like to be past racial assumptions I shock myself with the thoughts I continue to have. Given my initial reaction, I made sure Dr. Gardullo gave several explanations as to what his motivations were and why he curated at this museum. My intention behind these questions was not to interrogate Dr. Gardullo, but to have an open conversation so I can open my own eyes to other cultures like he has.
NOTE: This 1.5-minute video is an excerpt from Amora’s full interview. You can view the full interview here.
When I first spoke to Dr. Gardullo he was genuinely interested in his field and respected African American History and Culture. This was a welcome interaction because I appreciated his love, not just of African American History, but history in general. Gardullo was very open and responsive to my curiosity about his field. As the interview continued, I became more interested in history. Gardullo is a top expert and hearing him talk about his profession and the parts of his job helped me fall in love with history.
Dr. Gardullo began by sharing his motivation behind going into African American history. His story began when he was three years old and his oldest sister of six siblings had a mixed race child. His family didn’t accept the child and many problems he couldn’t understand suddenly bombarded his life. This family dispute encouraged Dr. Gardullo to learn more about different cultures and study them academically.
“That was a fundamental part of my youth, to be able to participate in an institution in a new way and building an institution in a new way that explicitly has to do with telling the truth around a history that had been submerged and suppressed for so long in a way that can lead to better understanding and healing,” said Gardullo.
Dr. Gardullo’s remarks about his family and the meaning behind why he works in African American studies and curates for arguably the most significant museum in the country are similar to why I love history and have a passion for studying different cultures. So many times I run into situations where I’m utterly clueless about someone’s culture and identity. I can’t communicate with them in any way, and more importantly, they can’t communicate with me. Imagine if someone were being discriminated against for a cultural barrier but they had no ally, no friend, and no ability to educate themselves. Gardullo makes great points about his ignorance as a child helping define his work and ambitions as an adult, because that is so realistic to almost everyone.
“We were told as curators that objects didn’t matter, that people your age don’t really care about objects, that it was all about virtual experiences. But we said that objects do matter because of the power that they hold and not just the individual object but the collection, the bringing together of a collection of objects around a history,” said Gardullo.
Objects in museums are an important part of storytelling, Gardullo recognizes this. History is conveyed, taught, and becomes art with an object. This lesson is lost among many museums that focus so much on the younger generation that they forget every other connoisseur of the institution. Because Gardullo remarked on the importance of such a monumental part of the museum leads me to believe he is the kind of person who should be working in museums as the Lorax for these objects.
Although the Coronavirus pandemic may have made things harder and less personal on a global scale, life continues and so do ongoing projects. It’s obvious Gardullo has a strong passion for his work. Even now he continues to work on various international projects with barely any interruption. One of my hopes for the future of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is to have programs for DC students. People like Gardullo can help this happen.