Tasha Chambers, director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia (Photo by Jay Paul)
Richmond magazine: How do you start with a topic as huge and varied as black history, and program that?
Tasha Chambers: There’s a programs and content committee [on the board], but most of the time I’m feeding them information I’m receiving from the community, or things that I want to do. They’re like a sounding board … and [our programming is] a response to what’s happening across the country and locally in our community. Honestly, a lot of partners have come to me to say, “We really want to partner with the Black History Museum. Here’s what we want to do.” Our first roundtable on race [last October] was with Jonathan Zur of [Virginia Center for] Inclusive Communities, and then the follow-up was Civitas [Health Services]. That stemmed from the first roundtable and that group wanting to see some practical solutions to what could be done in response to police brutality.
RM: What do you see as the museum’s role in telling the story of Black History Month?
Chambers: Black History Month is really the Black History Museum’s peak time to [present] the programming. [This year,] we’re building around the theme of “Life, Love & Liberty: Virginia’s Impact on the Nation,” using the films “Loving,” “Birth of a Nation” and “Hidden Figures” as the backdrop. We’re talking about how Virginia played a significant role in most everything that has happened in this country.
“We want people to feel like the Black History Museum is the hub of all things African and African-American culture.” —Tasha Chambers
RM: Have you gotten any significant feedback from the community that informs your programming goals?
Chambers: I think people want us to go back to more historical exhibitions, less of the fine arts, and I 1,000-percent agree with them. That [fine arts] space may belong more to other museums here in Richmond. We’re the only black history museum here in Richmond. Our permanent exhibition downstairs does cover African/African-American history, but people have also said they want to see more artifacts that we had at the old museum. So we’re revamping the first-floor exhibition. I’ve corralled a group of scholars and we’re bringing over more artifacts to the first-floor exhibition. We want people to feel like the Black History Museum is the hub of all things African and African-American culture — for someone interested in the history of Jackson Ward, or how Virginia unfolded, looking through the black lens.
RM: There’s still stuff at the old place?
Chambers: Oh yeah, we still have 00 East Clay [the museum’s former location]. The Jackson Ward exhibition is still there. I have to give recognition to Charles Bethea, who was the executive director at that time, because that says a lot of about his vision. It’s still a wonderful exhibition and it’s that nice balance of history and artifacts.
RM: Are First Fridays a priority?
Chambers: First Fridays [are] important, but our series will be a little shorter than everyone else’s because we don’t have a large staff here. It’ll run March through October.
After February, we’ll pick back up with [live music socials] Freedom Fridays, but we’re also going to create a series called “Diasporic Thursdays,” a musical event where people can come and hear music from South America, Africa, any country that has African influence or been part of that diaspora … I think VMFA does a wonderful job with Jazz Night, so we want to do something different for those who really love Caribbean music, reggae, soca, Afro-punk music.
RM: Are there other Richmond institutions that serve as a role model while you grow?
Chambers: The museum that I adore the most would be the Valentine. They’re like a hidden treasure in Richmond, as far as museums are concerned. The culture of the Valentine is something I’d like to see duplicated here once our staff grows: They’re a very accessible group of folks, their archives are amazing, they have photos from everything. And I think the Valentine just gets it, as far the ever-changing landscape of Richmond. [Executive Director] Bill Martin is growing with Richmond. His staff and his programming represent that. As far as leadership, I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for Christy Coleman, the president and CEO of the American Civil War Museum. Her whole presence at that museum is truly representative of what Richmond is becoming. She is Richmond’s quiet storm. The imagery of an African-American woman running that institution to me is hopeful. She’s phenomenal.
The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia reopened in its new location, the restored Leigh Street Armory at 122 W. Leigh St., in May 2016. The museum is closed on Mondays, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday though Saturday, and by appointment only on Sundays. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children 3 to 12. For more details on its programming plans, events and future exhibitions, visit blackhistorymuseum.org.