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Meet the lead curator of the Obama Presidential Center

Meet the women behind the Obama Presidential Center.

Crystal Moten, PhD, a Black woman with brown locs and a medium deep skin tone, smiles at the camera. She is wearing an orange blouse, blue beaded necklace, and red lipstick. In the background is a plant and gray curtain

Credit: Maurice L. Bland

Dr. Crystal Moten is the Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Obama Presidential Center Museum. She and her team support the exhibition design team led by Ralph Appelbaum Associates and are responsible for researching and collecting historical artifacts related to the life and political journey of President and Mrs. Obama.

We recently connected with Crystal to discuss how it feels to be a hometown girl returning to the South Side for this project, the vision for the Obama Presidential Center, and how her work connects to the legacy of the country’s 44th president.

Q: To start, tell us how your curatorial story began. What led you to the Obama Presidential Center?

A: My curatorial story doesn’t begin with wanting to be a curator at all. It actually begins with wanting to both learn more about and share African American history. After I finished my PhD in history, I immediately went on to teach United States history at small liberal arts colleges on the East Coast and in the upper Midwest. While teaching, I thought that as many people as possible should have access to African American history.

I thought about what career choices would allow me to be able to tell Black history and Black stories to an audience at scale. Then it hit me, how perfect would a museum be? How perfect would it be to create exhibitions? How perfect would it be to think about the objects that tell the stories of our history? And so that’s when I pivoted into the museum world. It was really an opportunity to expand the platform upon which I have been able to tell and share Black history.

One of my first positions in the museum field was working for the Smithsonian American History Museum. I focused on African American work and business history and was responsible for thinking about the objects that we had as it related to those stories and exhibitions. What drew me to the Obama Presidential Center was the mission and its connection to local communities. It was a way to be local but also global. We understand the local history from which the Obamas came and their connection to Chicago and we also understand the global impact of President Obama’s presidency.

Also, I loved the fact that I would get to work in the neighborhood on the side of town where I grew up. I went to Whitney Young High School then to Washington University in St. Louis for undergraduate where I majored in African American Studies and anthropology. Then, I received my master’s degree in African-American Studies and my PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin Madison. That’s such an essential part of who I am and what I study, which is African Americans in the Midwest. I have been researching African American life, history, culture, politics, and work for nearly two decades. So this is a culminating moment in terms of bringing together the personal, professional, and the intellectual.

Crystal Moten, PhD, a Black woman with a brown locs and a medium deep skin tone, smiles at the camera. In the background is construction at the site of the Obama Presidential Center. She is wearing black circular glasses, a brown beaded necklace, and a black tweed jacket.

Crystal Moten poses for a photo at the site of the Obama Presidential Center.

Q: Describe the vision for the Obama Presidential Center Museum. What story do you hope to convey to visitors?

A: For the Obama Presidential Center, we really want people to understand that it was a collective set of actions that got President Obama to where he is today. We are telling the story and the history of President Obama becoming the nation’s first Black president. We are explaining the buildup that happened way before 2008, focusing on what led to President Obama’s historic victory, diving into the eight years of his administration, the pushback and the obstruction that happens at the end of his administration, and civic action that empowers everyone to engage in democracy.

There are so many important people, communities, and groups that help us tell that story of not just President Obama but Mrs. Obama as well. The way that we are exploring the Obamas together as a family is crucial. The way we think about the presidential story, she’s integral to that.

We want to show that together we can create the change we desire. All of our small actions added together is what moves the mountain. What history tells us is that change takes time. And I think that’s what the Presidential Center also shows. The way in which we agitate for change and the time that it takes, it’s not going to happen immediately. It didn’t happen over eight years. There’s still work to be done.

Q: Stepping back—what does a typical day look like?

A: We are in the project phase right now so we are trying at this moment to finalize all of our exhibitions. This means confirming the objects we will have on display, writing the text that will accompany the objects, confirming the images that will be on display, and writing the text that will accompany the images. In addition to that, we are thinking about and creating all of the media programs, both the video and the interactives. It also means keeping up and connecting with the donors who’ve already given us their objects because we have to steward them and take care of them. It’s a lot of cultivating those relationships.

The curatorial team is also thinking about the strategy for the additional spaces on campus. Within the museum building, we’ll have a special exhibitions gallery. We are thinking about fun and engaging exhibitions that interplay between the museum building, the forum, and the library. We are building a campus with several buildings so a project this large can be overwhelming. But, I am inspired by the vastness of this project.

In this photo, Crystal Moten sits in a chair across from Tom Steffus, a white man with a light skin tone and thin brown hair, for an interview about the Obama Presidential Center. An office space and 3D model of the Obama Presidential Center is in the background.

Crystal Moten being interviewed by Tom Steffus for a Built to Last segment on the Obama Presidential Center.

Q: To close, you are helping continue the legacy of President and Mrs. Obama, as well as creating the physical manifestation of the Foundation’s mission to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world. What do you hope your legacy for this project and beyond will be?

A: I have so many hopes. On the one hand, I hope that the people who live around the campus find it to be a home away from home. I want them to come on the grounds and enjoy a wonderful walk, go into the forum and enjoy that atmosphere, or visit the branch of Chicago Public Library and thumb through a book. I hope the community doesn’t see this as “Oh, that’s for the tourists.”

For the city of Chicago, my hope is that the Presidential Center showcases the importance of Black Midwestern stories and the Obamas’ connection to the city. And then finally thinking about the global impact of this, I would hope that the campus could be an example for what happens when a nation of committed people decide to make a change, because they believe that they can. I want people to take that back to wherever they live and do what needs to be done for their communities.

Personally, I want to be remembered for being a part of a broader team that helped bring this vision to life. I hope that our commitment, our connections, and our collaboration would extend beyond this physical manifestation. This is our home, and I hope that in 50 years from now people are still coming.