The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has announced the selection of its deputy director, Michelle Commander. Commander brings a plethora of experience, leadership and knowledge to the position, most recently working as the deputy director of research and strategic initiatives at The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Prior to that appointment, Commander served as the Schomburg Center’s associate director and curator of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery.
“With her wide-ranging work on global slavery, West Africa, and Afrofuturism, Michelle is deeply anchored in history with an understanding of how historic collections intersect with our contemporary world,” said Kevin Young, Andrew W. Mellon Director of the museum. “She has a demonstrated record of embracing innovation to expand a museum’s reach to various communities.”
Commander is succeeding the outgoing deputy director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, who retired in December 2022 after almost two decades of service to NMAAHC. During her time at the museum, Holman Conwill built powerful collaborations to help expand the museum’s collections, foster external partnerships and develop exhibitions and programs.
As the deputy director for the largest national museum of African American history and culture, Commander will support work on the current Living History campaign and expanding technologies, building upon the museum’s goal to reach every corner of the digital world. She will also be responsible for assisting and collaborating in the overall planning, development and management of the museum’s activities while leading the offices of Education and Publications. Commander will develop partnerships and cultivate an environment of learning and engagement across the Smithsonian museums.
The deputy director is an essential position at NMAAHC, where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience—what it means to their lives, and how it has shaped this nation. In addition to in-person visitors and programs, the museum’s digital initiatives have reached 21 million virtual visitors, illuminating the past and connecting history to the issues of today.
Commander received her doctorate and Master of Arts in American studies and ethnicity from the University of Southern California, Master of Science in curriculum and instruction from Florida State University and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Charleston Southern University. She is a recipient of research fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the Fulbright Scholar Program. Commander is an elected member of the American Antiquarian Society. For eight years, Commander served in the Department of English and Program in Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, earning the rank of associate professor before joining the Schomburg Center. She is also consulting curator for the recent Afrofuturism period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Before Yesterday We Could Fly.” Her books include Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke University Press, 2017) and Avidly Reads: Passages (NYU Press, 2021). She is the editor of the anthology Unsung: Unheralded Narratives of American Slavery & Abolition (Penguin, 2021).