Director, Dr. Tey Marianna Nunn leads the American Women’s History Initiative | Smithsonian Voices | American Women’s History Initiative


Director Dr. Tey Marianna Nunn leads the American Women’s History Initiative

Dr Tey Marianna Nunn (Addison Doty.)

Dr Tey Marianna Nunn became the new director of our American Women’s History Initiative on Monday August 16. The initiative directs the research, dissemination and amplification of American women’s stories to create a more equitable and just society.

Dr Nunn is an award-winning author, museum curator, consultant and community activist. She brings her passion for sharing the stories of underserved and neglected communities to the initiative. Previously, Dr. Nunn was Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Art and Visual Arts Program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dr Nunn is a member of the National Museum and Library Services Board, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2016.

Dr Nunn shares what inspires her to lead work focusing on women’s history at the Smithsonian.

What excites you about the mission of the American Women History Initiative?

I like that our central mission is to share stories of women. We are committed to ensuring the visibility and inclusion of diverse audiences and future generations. Women have always shaped history, but their stories have not always been included. The stories we learn depend on the personal opinions of our storytellers, historians and chroniclers. Their perspectives illuminate the way history is written. Fortunately, there are pioneers who have been working in women’s history for decades. I’m also inspired by new students researching women’s contributions to history.

Our role at the American Women’s History Initiative is to uncover and recover stories and insert them into historic and current landscapes. In doing so, we create a more accurate version of our shared history. I believe everyone has a story of women to tell.

I’m so excited about this because my interests are very interdisciplinary. History, art, science, nature, sport, culture? You name it, I’m in it.

The Initiative builds a more just American society for future generations, in part, through internships. Our program guides students as they learn unique tools for civic engagement and representation in museums and other community spaces.

What formative experiences in your career have helped you become a leader?

I would not have accepted this post of director if I had not been an intern! In 1994, I did an internship at the National Museum of American History. At that time, it was called a “minority” course. That same summer, I was one of the first students selected for the Smithsonian’s Latin Museum Studies program. The Smithsonian created this program after an internal task force on Latin American issues reported on the lack of Latin American representation in Smithsonian exhibits, programming, and staff. The Latino Museum Studies Program has created a national forum for graduate students to share, explore, and discuss the representation and interpretation of Latin American cultures in the context of the American experience.

My work with the Smithsonian that summer left a lasting impression on me. I left to make a difference in my community in New Mexico. Most importantly, I made my own professional assignment to mentor as many interns as possible. I wanted to make sure that the museum, creative and cultural fields have diverse voices and perspectives. I learned so much from these interns.

Why do you think it is important for AWHI to have a digital-focused mission?

Going digital first increases our ability to connect with community members, students, researchers, educators and many more. Not everyone can afford to travel to see the Smithsonian Museums in person. This pandemic has proven that we can learn remotely from our computers. Our digitally driven mission also allows diverse communities to share their stories with us.

Nonetheless, we must always remember that there are many parts of the country, both rural and urban, which still struggle with digital access and infrastructure. If we can’t reach all audiences digitally, we’ll connect in other ways as well.

Do you have a favorite memory from the Smithsonian?

How many can I list? As a little girl, I remember my father taking me to see the pendulum and the dollhouse at the National Museum of American History. We also saw the original model of the Spaceship company at the National Museum of Air and Space and the Olmec Head at the National Museum of Natural History.

When the zoo started working with China to save pandas from extinction, I was stunned. I read everything I could and started collecting panda figurines. My collection won first place at the Arizona State Fair. It was a sure sign that I would grow up and work in museums. Today I am a big fan of the Giant Panda Cam and #PandaStory. Tracking Xiao Qi Ji’s progress has helped me get through the pandemic.

At the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum, we exhibited author Sandra Cisneros’ ofrenda to her mother, Elvira Cordero Cisneros, in 2011. Cisneros originally installed the ofrenda at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. My team and I worked side by side with Cisneros as they installed each component. Three years later, I traveled to see the ofrenda installed at the National Museum of American History. It was so wonderful to see the work take on a different feel in each of the spaces. Both times I was moved by the way Cisneros combined his writing and visual arts to honor his mother.

Elaborate and colorful altar built on a bed post, with photos, food, dozens of candles, marigolds and roses, and other handmade details

A Room of Her Own ofrenda by Sandra Cisneros on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, 2014 (National Museum of American History)

As an adult, I can’t forget the year the Air and Space Museum exhibited Wonder Woman’s invisible jet on April Fool’s Day. It was awesome. And I have many fond memories of fellow trainees, researchers and staff. I feel very connected to the Smithsonian.

Learn more about the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initative.

Sara E. Cohen

Sara E. Cohen is the Digital Audiences and Content Coordinator for Because of Her Story, the Smithsonian American Women’s History initiative. She shares stories of lesser-known women with the public through videos, articles, social media, and the Due of Her Story website and newsletter.

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