Noelle Trent is set to take over the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, an ideal job for a historian specializing in 19th-century history. But for her, the new job isn’t just a stepping stone — it’s a homecoming.
When Trent starts as president and chief executive of the museum on June 12, she returns to the city where her parents studied and raised their family. She was born here.
Once in Boston, she will have the task of uplifting New England’s rich Black history at a time when museums still haven’t fully recovered from the economic downfall of COVID-19. She will also have other challenges, such as confronting ongoing resistance to historic interpretations that include racism’s role in American history.
Trent arrives at her new job after serving since 2015 as director of interpretation, collections, and education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. The Globe spoke with her about her background, goals for the Museum of African American History, and how the institution can move forward during a time of financial uncertainty.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. I saw that you have Boston ties?
A. My dad was attending Andover Newton Theological Seminary, and my mom was attending Northeastern University when I was born here. So my early childhood years were spent in Boston ... we lived in Newton Centre. It’s an anchoring point for me. . . . There are a lot of photographs of me at different Boston cultural institutions. In some ways, I think that kids absorb things and it becomes part of your identity.
Q. What were some of your biggest accomplishments in Memphis?
A. We’ve done so many wonderful things. One of them is MLK50, which was the 50th anniversary of Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s assassination. I was the lead organizer for the commemoration ceremony that was internationally aired.
. . . I’m also really proud of how my team navigated the pandemic.
The other thing that we’ve done really well is rapid response ... [or] being able to come up with a way to respond to current crises or current events. Typically, a museum exhibition can take anywhere from a year to two years to up to five or 10 years. Some institutions that do rapid response take six months, some people three months. We’ve done it in a matter of weeks.
Q. What are some of MAAH’s biggest challenges, and how will you address them?
A. One of the things that I’m doing in my first 90 days at the museum is really sitting into understanding the museum and the community. I want to refrain from saying, ‘this is the challenge,’ because I respect that there’s been a lot of work going on. This organization has been in transition for a period of time. It’s incredibly important ... to figure out how you move from transition to the next level. The big thing that’s of focus of the board and staff is obtaining accreditation.
There’s a lot of thoughtful, meaningful work around what it means to be the largest African American museum in New England. How do we see ourselves in the future, especially within the context of the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026? There’s a lot of national conversation around it, but what does it mean for various state regions or groups?
… I don’t necessarily think that those are challenges, but those are questions that we really need to sit in and take time to figure out. The future is full of exciting possibilities and collaborations.
Q. The museum has faced financial hardship in the last decade. Do you have some ideas to steer things in the right direction?
A. There is no doubt that the field took a hit. We do know that Black museums especially are dealing with these challenges and issues, but there are opportunities for support that have happened. … For readers, it’s thinking about how you support Black museums across the field. It’s everything from visiting, to becoming a member, to actively donating, to support and programming. ... We’re rolling up on the date where the presidential administration is going to say that the [COVID-19] public emergency is ended, [but] the crisis has not ended for our arts and culture organizations across the country. Museums, largely are still trying to get back to our pre-COVID numbers.
Q. What’s the importance of museums like this one, especially at a time when lawmakers and schools are cracking down on discussions of race, gender, and history?
A. There are multiple contributors to the American story. You can tell the story of enslaved Black people ... and free Black people, and it doesn’t necessarily take away from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or any of the Founding Fathers. In fact, it enhances it. This is part of the dialogue that helped formulate this country. It’s not just a matter of people wanting to see themselves in the history books. It’s incredibly important to say that this Black history doesn’t exist on the periphery.
Q. How will you define success in your role?
A. I want to elevate this organization to the next level, and I’m not fully clear on what that looks like. There’s some things along the way, like obtaining accreditation, examining digital engagement opportunities, and collaborating with organizations and academic institutions throughout the region, if not country. [Success] will be quantifiable in the long term. But for myself, [when] I have made an impact is when I can look at what we’re doing, and know that Sue Bailey Thurman would be happy.
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.