Building a Museum Collection from the Ground Up

Museum collections are so often the product of serendipity and circumstance— accumulated over a long period of time, shaped by curators’ interests, particular exhibition needs, bequests and a myriad of other factors. But what about a museum starting from scratch?

WWII-era plane, The Spirit of Tuskegee, used to train the Tuskegee Airmen
The “Spirit of Tuskegee,” a World War II-era plane used in training the Tuskegee Airmen, seen over Tuskegee, Alabama. Captain Matthew Quy, a 35-year-old active-duty serviceman from Minnesota, bought the plane as a wreck on eBay. When he discovered its historic significance, he decided to restore it and donate it to the Smithsonian. This photo is from the plane’s final journey across the country, as Quy united with Tuskegee Airmen and participated in airshows and educational programs, while making his way to Washington, DC. Photo from

At the
Smithsonian Institution, where some of the collections were amassed more than 160 years ago, I’ve been following with great interest the development of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), due to open in 2015 and currently, as they say on their website, “busy creating their foundational collections.” No doubt the curators there have wish-lists and subject areas in which they want to collect, in order to be able to convey some of the essential stories of the African American experience. But collecting will also be influenced simply by what is available at this particular moment, or by what heirlooms or memorabilia people decide to share with the museum (NMAAHC has a donations form on their page to facilitate just such a thing). What other factors will shape the creation of this museum collection? Will we learn the history behind some of these acquisitions? So far there are only a few indications of the collections on the website, and not yet much data on the objects themselves. The place that the Smithsonian holds in the imagination of many in the USA often means that exceptional items—such as Harriet Tubman’s lace shawl and hymnal, and a two-seater plane used to train America’s first African American military pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, in World War II—end up coming to the institution, often in very interesting, felicitous ways.

Portrait of George III by the Allan Ramsay studio
This portrait of George III, wearing the ermine and gold-silk robes he wore to his 1760 coronation, was painted by the studio of Allan Ramsay, official painter to the court. Still in its original frame, the enormous (more than eight feet by five feet) painting will serve as one of the anchors for the new exhibition spaces when the new Yorktown museum opens in 2016. It is now on view in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution.” (Photo courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

“Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution,”
an exhibition that opened this month at the Jamestown Settlement offers a window into another museum collection that is, in a way, being built from the ground up. The Yorktown Victory Center was established in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial celebrations around the country. Now the state-run organization is busy constructing a large new museum facility, to be opened in 2016, to be called the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. With this new branding comes a larger remit, to interpret the American Revolution from a variety of perspectives, examining as well the issues that led to it and the new nation that emerged from it. The new galleries will feature immersive environments, interactive exhibits and other technological tools, as well as a large outdoor living history encampment. The re-conception of the museum has also necessitated an extensive acquisition program. Some sixty of these new objects—furniture, weapons, sculpture, documents, and other items—are being featured in this new exhibition, which runs until early 2014. Yorktown’s website offers a glimpse of some of these new artifacts, and they have also put together several excellent videos highlighting some of their key acquisitions, such as this coronation portrait of George III and an extraordinary life-size plaster copy of Houdon’s statue of George Washington that once stood in the U.S. Capitol (the marble original can be found today in the Virginia State Capitol). But as with the NMAAHC website, it seems that there is still quite a bit of room here to engage the public by sharing stories about the process of building a new museum. I look forward to watching both these sites over the next few years.

Life-size plaster statue of George Washington—William James Hubard (1850s)
This life-size plaster statue of George Washington was made in the 1850s by William James Hubard. It is a copy of the late 18th-century marble statue by Jean-Antoine Houdon. A gift of the Library of Virginia, it is now on view in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution.” (Photo courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

Visit Journey to the Smithsonian: “Spirit of Tuskegee” at