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A Conversation with Joanne Hyppolite

By Meagan Bess

With fall issuing in the changing of the seasons, the Supervisory Museum Curator of the African Diaspora at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D.C., Joanne Hyppolite speaks appreciatively about this time of year and how it impacts her and the Arts and Humanities month. “I love the fall because it signals that we’re in the last quarter of the year. It’s an important time to reflect on where we are, and what could be more important than to reflect on the human condition or our collective humanity?” She continues, “In its many diverse forms and creative practices, the arts are a powerful lens we can use to reflect, share, uplift, and even grieve and mourn. We need these outlets.”

It is evident that Hyppolite’s knowledge is true. Art is as important today as it has always been. When looking through the lens of humanity, it’s imperative to reflect on the dedication to the arts and how it should not be taken lightly. The arts are an important contributor in society and self expression.

Hyppolite is also the board president of the Museums Association of the Caribbean also known as MAC, which was established in 1989 to allow museums and related organizations in the Caribbean to share experiences and skills. During their conferences, attendees share, learn and acquire new skillsets and knowledge to better serve their communities.

The very first MAC conference took place in Dominica in 1989. Since then, over the past thirty years the conferences have been held in Dutch, Spanish, English, and the French-speaking Caribbean. In partnership with MAC, a museum or cultural agency in a different country will host the event each year.

MAC is led by a diverse set of board of directors from the Bahamas, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Jamacia, the United States, Panama and the Cayman Islands.

Hyppolite’s interest and expertise in Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean culture goes back to her youth. The Haitian born curator immigrated to the United States at the age of four. She grew up in a majority African American community inside Dorchester, MA. Since she was a child, she was fascinated by the differences and similarities between Caribbean culture and African American culture.

“I was constantly contrasting, comparing, and enjoying these different but similar cultural expressions,” when it comes to the vibrant artistic heritage surrounding African Americans and Haiti, she shares.

Hyppolite also admits it felt like home being able to study not only African American studies but Caribbean studies. Exploring each culture gives a sense of pride to those who represent it. And those who are looking in but do not specifically represent the cultures can still feel a sense of pride for learning about the beauty of a culture different from their own.

It is also notable that Hyppolite was a Chief Curator at HistoryMiami Museum from 2008 to 2013. During her time there she performed a lot of community research including time in Miami’s uniquely represented communities. Her research included collecting objects that represented their history and presenting them in exhibitions. She also had the chance to direct and supervise curated exhibitions at that location such as Haitian Community Arts, Black Crossroads: The African Diaspora in Miami, and Black Freedom in Florida.

During her last year there she steered two popular exhibitions at the museum, I Shook Up the World: Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston and Bob Marley: Messenger.

Hyppolite admits that her time as one of the few Black curators at a major museum in Miami, with the museum world overall being predominately white caused her to suffer from the same need for community that she recognizes in MAC’s mission and purpose. And joining the NMAAHC was a blessing for her emotionally and spiritually.

“I felt like I had found my tribe. My fellow curators share the same interests as I do in Black humanity and the majority of them are also Black. We bring to our work both our lived experiences and understanding of what that means in the United States and the scholarly expertise to break it down for our visiting public.”

“There’s a collective sense of purpose at NMAAHC that I haven’t felt anywhere else I’ve worked. And we’re very good at what we do. Many major museums around the country will present exhibitions about Black history and culture, but these are too often one-off events. There isn’t a sustained commitment to share these experiences or to foster change. That’s the difference NMAAHC, and other black museums in the United States are trying to make.”

Hyppolite believes that MAC’s greatest asset to its members and larger stakeholders is its network and its training opportunities where Caribbean-based and Caribbean-interest museum professionals are provided a space to get together and allow the magic from those connections to happen. Attendees leave the conference with new friends and colleagues they can reach out to if they have questions and collaborate with if they have shared interests. They bond over their shared museum missions and the experiences that are unique to their profession. A component of the conference is providing educational workshops to help museum workers develop their professional skills.

MAC also provides educational workshops to help museum workers develop their professional skills. “We’re currently running one focused on disaster management this fall in Martinique in partnership with ICOM and the CTM in Martinique, says Hyppolite.” Five of the selected attendees are from Haiti, which unfortunately experienced its second major earthquake this past summer. Hyppolite points out, “While we can’t stop what happens due to climate, we can understand how to safeguard and mitigate its impact on cultural resources.”

This year’s MAC Conference and AGM will take place virtually November 3-5 with the theme “Cultivating Resilience in Museums and Cultural Heritage Sites.” In more than 15 concurrent sessions, museum professionals, including curators, educators, scholars, and researchers, are uniting to discuss themes related to historical sites, indigenous peoples, and social justice.

Two groups of panelists from Jamaica will present their research on three designated heritage sites in the community of Woodside, St. Mary. Both groups excellently illustrate the conference’s theme and will ask ask important questions about surviving and thriving under challenging conditions and circumstances.

Thanks couldn’t be given without acknowledging the sponsors who share their interest in the Caribbean and MAC is grateful that the sponsors enable them to meet their mission successfully.

Finally, Hyppolite offers her thoughts about wellness and how it is represented in the culture. “Wellness is fostered through many ways, including movement, food, medicine, social interaction, and time spent in nature or appreciating the arts. Museum workers foster wellness by creating opportunities for visitors, individually and collectively, whether it’s enjoying a cultural program, walking through a gallery, or exploring a cultural heritage site.”

Cultural programming has always been a part of their conferences which makes it very inclusive and intriguing. This year there will not be a gathering in the Caribbean, but there will be meditation and wellness components offered virtually.

The conversation with Hyppolite doesn’t stop here, as these conferences are a motivating factor to keep up with the Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean culture and see what more can be discovered.

For more information on MAC, head over to their website and see how you can get involved.

Registration for the conference at https://caribbeanmuseums.com/maccon2021/

Follow on social media.

Facebook-https://www.facebook.com/caribbeanmuseums/

Twitter-https://twitter.com/caribmuse

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