National Museum of African American History and Culture Opening Special: The “How Does a Curator Work?” Edition

Museum specialist Mary Elliott talks about preparing a major installation for the newest Smithsonian.

Mary Elliott.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Michael R. Barnes and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Listen to this episode of Working with guest Mary Elliott:

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This weekend saw the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and to mark the occasion we’re sharing an interview we did back in May with one of its curators. Mary Elliott curated a massive exhibition at the museum. In that exhibit, she and her colleagues aim to complicate some of the received narratives about slavery, even as they aspire to anticipate visitors’ questions and enrich existing understandings.


Elliott talked to us about gathering objects for the museum, ranging from a protective amulet the size of a fingernail to an entire slave cabin. She also discussed the complex work of putting these artifacts on display and framing them within their historical context. To that end, she went into the effort of writing captions, the museum’s collaborations with scholars, and all the other complexities of bringing a centuries-old story to life.

And in a Slate Plus extra, Elliott tells us about her own explorations of her family’s history, discussing the ways that their stories intertwine with the national narrative.  If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. Start your two-week free trial at

Twitter: @Jacob_Brogan

Podcast production by Mickey Capper.