As a philanthropist and advocate for the Black community, Robert F. Smith has a long-standing commitment to preserving African American history and culture. In fact, a guiding principle of Fund II Foundation, in which Smith is founding director and President, is to preserve the African-American experience, and the charitable foundation frequently supports organizations who “illuminate the richness of Black history and culture.”
Today, a number of museums are unveiling new, digital methods to preserve their artifacts and make them accessible to online visitors. Below are two examples of digitization methods that Smith himself or the Fund II Foundation has supported.
Louis Armstrong House Museum
The Louis Armstrong Museum (LAHM) celebrates the legacy of jazz musician Louis Armstrong through preserving his house in Corona, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. After his passing in 1971, Armstrong’s wife Lucille pushed for their home to become a museum and National Historic Landmark. In 2003, LAHM officially opened for in-person tours after ownership was transferred to the City of New York and Queens College.
In 2015, Smith reached out to Ricky Riccardi, LAHM’s director of research collections, about creating a digital archive of Armstrong’s life as part of a larger effort to preserve Black history. Smith’s digitization idea included preserving day-to-day audio recordings from Armstrong, photographs from his life and other artifacts.
A year later, the Fund II Foundation provided the museum a $3 million grant, with $2.7 million going directly to LAHM’s digitization efforts. Additionally, the remaining $300,000 went toward hiring two full-time museum fellows from Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) to work alongside Riccardi.
The entire digitization process took two years and translated thousands of Armstrong’s physical artifacts. “[To be able to access] the digital archive reminds me of what a humanitarian and what a great human being he was. In the photos, you see the happiness, you see the joy—I find the digitized archive to be really touching,” said trumpeter and composer Terell Stafford when asked about the now digitized archive.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is the “only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history and culture.” It was established by an Act of Congress in 2003, and officially opened in September 2016 in Washington, D.C.
Smith has been one of the biggest supporters of NMAAHC since its founding. In 2016, Smith’s gift of $20 million was among one of the largest individual donations to the museum. This gift supported the museum’s digitization program, as well as “community outreach and curatorial initiatives.”
“I am thrilled to bring the transformative power of technology to celebrate and conserve the African American experience in America,” Smith said in a press release announcing the gift.
Smith’s donation directly funded NMAAHC’s Center for the Digitization and Curation of African American History, which offers innovative programs that rely on technology to preserve and amplify Black history and culture. One of the key components of the museum’s digitization efforts is the Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center, a virtual program that helps families conduct genealogy research. Interested families can sign up for research sessions with NMAAHC staff members, who will walk them through online genealogy databases. In addition to these sessions, the Center also offers virtual workshops focused on genealogy, digital archiving and conserving Black history.
Learn more about Smith’s efforts through Fund II Foundation to support organizations committed to the preservation and promotion of Black history.