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Musical Crossroads: Interpreting the Material Culture of African American Music

September 23, 2023 @ 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

The ways we engage with music are constantly evolving. In recent decades, countless museums, historic sites, libraries, and archives have built music collections for research, exhibitions, and programming purposes. Within this movement to document, preserve, and interpret music’s existence, is a growing interest in music’s material culture, the tangible objects that are the evidence of its existence. This musical material culture encompassing everything from iconic musical instruments and costumes to the seemingly mundane office equipment or promotional toy, facilitates research in African American music which is at the center of an eco-system that lives and thrives through a network of connections and encounters among people, communities, places, organizations, and institutions.

McClung Fleming’s 1974 model for artifact study has been a useful framework for analyzing material culture within the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Music and Performing Arts Collection. With four basic operations of identification, evaluation, cultural analysis, and interpretation, Fleming’s model extends basic museum identification procedures, which carefully document the appearance and historical significance, into the realm of humanistic discussion. Applying this model to musical artifacts deepens our understanding of music’s meaning in a social, historical, and cultural context.

Dwandalyn R. Reece’s latest book, Musical Crossroads: Stories Behind the Objects of African American Music (March 2023)draws upon a diverse array of objects in the Museum’s music collection to expand our understanding of the culture and the historical impact of African American music-making in the United States and around the world.  This material culture of African American music opens the door to a broad network of encounters, relationships, community structures, and activities that bring music to life. As source material, objects pose and invite questions that have the potential to unearth hidden figures and additional narratives, leading to new interpretive possibilities. They can challenge or affirm established paradigms, uncover the voices and experiences of those who have been unheard or overlooked, and have the potential to expand historical narratives in new directions.


Dr. Dwandalyn R. Reece is Associate Director for the Humanities at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She brings more than thirty-five years of knowledge and experience in public humanities work, including twelve years as NMAAHC’s Curator of Music and Performing Arts. Under her leadership, the Museum built a collection of over 4,000 objects and curated the museum’s inaugural permanent exhibition, Musical Crossroads, for which she received the Secretary’s Research Prize in 2017. Other projects have include author and editor of the publication, Musical Crossroads: Stories about the Objects of African American Music (March 2023), contributing producer of the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap (2021), co-curating the Smithsonian Year of Music in 2019 and the museum’s 2016 grand opening music festival, Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Program, Rhythm and Blues: Tell it Like it Is in 2011.  She is also chair of the Smithsonian Music Executive Committee, a pan-institutional group that promotes access to the SI vast musical holdings. Dwan has appeared on numerous media outlets including NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS This Morning, USA Today, Vice News and Al Jazeera and has appeared on such podcasts as WTF with Marc Maron, Sound Expertise, and the Hikma Collective.    Her 2019 Ted X Mid-Atlantic talk on blackface minstrelsy was posted on Ted.com and has appeared in several documentaries including Rosenwald (2012) and the Unladylike episode on Gladys Bentley (2018). She just completed her second season on the award-winning SiriusXM podcast series, All Music is Black Music.  Dwan serves as Board Member-at-Large for the Society for Ethnomusicology and the Society for American Music.


September 23, 2023
5:00 pm - 7:00 pm


Music Building Auditorium
1114 W. Nevada St.
Urbana, IL
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