Tsione Wolde-Michael

Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH)
Headshot of a woman.


Jo Reed:. From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed

In December, President Biden named Tsione Wolde-Michael executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH).  Before we talk about Tsione, let me you a little about PCAH.  After a five year hiatus, PCAH was reestablished by President Biden this past fall.  It’s an advisory board that counsels the White House on cultural issues engaging the nation’s artists, humanities scholars, and cultural heritage practitioners on ways to promote excellence in the arts, the humanities, and museum and library services and demonstrate their relevance to the country’s health, economy, equity, and civic life.

Tisone Wolde-Michael is a public historian with a track record of bringing diverse and previously unheard voices into the public forum. Tsione comes to PCAH as the founder and director of the Center for Restorative History, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. She had previously worked as part of the inaugural staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture where among her duties, she helped curate its first major exhibit “Slavery and Freedom.” Tsione is the first African-American, first historian, and youngest person to direct PCAH. Although its early days yet, and the rest of the committee has yet to be named, choosing Tsione Wolde-Michael as director of PCAH is an important indicator of the centrality of the arts and humanities to the Biden administration. We wanted you to know more about her, her work and her thinking about PCAH.   And that’s where I began my conversation with Tsione Wolde-Michael.

Jo Reed:. Well, first of all, congratulations at being named the Executive Director of PCAH.

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Thank you so much.

Jo Reed:  Tsione, I described PCAH in very broad strokes….I wonder if you can fill in some of the details.

Tsione Wolde-Michael:  Sure. I think it's important to go into the history of PCAH, a bit. It was founded in 1982, by executive order, and its purpose was to advise the President--and, by extension, the White House-- on cultural policy. And there has been a strong legacy of direct engagement with the First Lady, who historically has served as honorary chair of the committee, and the committee is comprised of 25 private members who are appointed by the President. And these are prominent artists, scholars, philanthropists, people who have demonstrated a serious commitment to the arts and the humanities. There are also public members, and those are represented by the heads of key federal agencies and institutions that have a very vital role in culture. So, that includes the chairs of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Librarian of Congress, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, and that's just among many others. And the goal has always been to advance critical work through direct policy recommendations to the President, to facilitate public-private partnerships, and promote interagency cooperation, and that's really across the federal government. And the way that that's historically been done has been by proposing programs that enhance support for the arts and humanities-- also, museums and library services-- really, across the country. So, PCAH has worked on issues in education and cultural diplomacy, and the creative economy, too. The committee has a history of issuing important policy reports, primarily on the state of the arts, and also finding ways to really catalyze federal programs, and it's done this over the past 40 years.

Jo Reed: Can you give me some examples of the initiatives PCAH has spearheaded in the past?

Tsione Wolde-Michael:  Sure.  Examples of some of the past work of PCAH that would be familiar to folks include the “Save America's Treasures” program; “Film Forward”, which was through Sundance; and then, of course, the very beloved National Student Poets Program. “Turnaround Arts” was also another big initiative that was piloted, right here in Washington, D.C., as well. And so, those are just a few of the examples of past special initiatives that PCAH put forward, and it offered these programs, right? But it also did work beyond that. So, it worked as convener to host summits, and also produce really high-profile events that help to address gaps in the field. Now, that's a-- <laughs> that's a long history of PCAH, right?

Jo Reed: It is, and I know President Biden's executive order, reinstituting PCAH, actually expands its mission and the reach of PCAH, doesn't it?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: That's right. So, in September of last year, after a five-year hiatus, President Biden issued a new executive order establishing PCAH, and the charge of this new iteration of PCAH remains much the same to the previous iteration. You know, its work is to really engage the nation's artists, humanities scholars, and cultural heritage practitioners on ways to promote excellence in the arts and humanities, and of course museums and library services. And also, as you mentioned, it's an incredibly expansive understanding of the reach of the arts and humanities, and it extends it to areas thinking about how arts and humanities can impact areas like public health, economic development; thinking about civic life; even thinking about climate change, for instance. So, it's a really exciting time for the arts and humanities to have PCAH back, and, as you mentioned, this new executive order really bolsters the mission of PCAH in ways that I think are very encouraging.

Jo Reed: Well, let's talk a little bit about you right now. Tell me where you were born and raised, and just a little bit about you.

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Sure. So, I was born and raised in the Twin Cities, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I was born in Minneapolis, but I love both <laughs> of the cities just the same. I was born to immigrant parents who came to the United States from Ethiopia, and I'm the youngest of six children, the only U.S.-born child. And the Twin Cities are really this dynamic and funky and lively place to grow up, and of course it helped to foster my love for the humanities and the arts. This is a place where there are so many amazing grassroots efforts on the ground, phenomenal museums, really dynamic community-based theaters, and it's a part of, really, what made me, and what raised me.

Jo Reed: Well, you're an historian, and I'm curious what attracted you to the study of history, and public history, because that's really where you've made your mark.

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Yeah. So, I initially started off doing work in women's studies, so that's feminist theory, and I really felt like a lot of my modes of argumentation and questioning were pushing me to ask questions about origin stories, which is really what brought me to history. So, I tell people I am interested in history because I'm interested in understanding the present. And I did my graduate studies at Harvard University, which is a place that really trains you to go into the academy. But I knew early on that my work really needed a public; that I wanted to not just write articles that were going to be read by highly specialized scholars and just a handful of folks in the field, but work that would be transformative and that could connect to broad and diverse publics. And so that's what really opened me up to the world of public history, the world of museums, and that's where my career ultimately led me.

Jo Reed: Well, you certainly began <laughs> your early career with a bang, at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and you started there before the building was even built. So, you helped develop the collections and its inaugural exhibit, Slavery and Freedom. I would love to hear about that experience from you, of watching this building rise up on the Mall, and help curate such an important exhibit.

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Yeah, that's right. So, I like to say that I am the product of black museums. I spent my career as a public historian launching these large-scale projects from the ground up, and that all started at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where I was part of the inaugural staff, working to really transform understandings of our nation's past, and tell the American story through the African American lens at a national level for the first time, in this kind of robust and comprehensive way. And so, the Smithsonian is an odd place to cut your teeth. It's unusual, and I started there under the direction of now-Secretary Lonnie Bunch, where I worked with a small curatorial team over six years. It was very much a startup culture. And so we were out in the field, and scrappy, and working based in communities, to amass this collection from scratch, and we did that by building strong ties through what we call, in the field, community-based collecting. So, really, learning local histories, respecting local knowledges, and making sure that they rise to the fore, in terms of the type of national storytelling that we've done. And I should mention, sometimes these are stories that have yet to be captured by scholarship. And, as you mentioned, that work went into creating the museum's largest and foundational exhibit, Slavery and Freedom. Once the museum was open, the question was, "Okay, well, now all of the exhibits are set. What is our work, out in the world?"  "What is our work, beyond the four walls of the museum?" And so, I pivoted to managing some of the international projects, particularly those in Africa, documenting and recovering objects from slave ship wrecks, and working with colonial art-and-history museums to really reinterpret their collections in ways that were more relevant to African publics. This was obviously very special for me, being part of the African diaspora, having the opportunity to work with State Department, being detailed to the African Union, and advising on cultural heritage and preservation work that was happening across the continent, and also thinking about how these elements could be applied to areas like economic development through creative sectors. So, it was a really exciting and formative way to start my career.

Jo Reed: I would think so. Can you just tell me what you thought when that museum first opened, and people from across the country-- around the world-- walked in and saw those exhibits?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: You know, I always joke with folks that I am glad that, during the process, I wasn't thinking about how broad and large the reception would be, because we were already feeling the pressure <laughs> of telling this story that hadn't really been told on the national stage in this way. But when I was a part of those opening ceremonies, and I saw whole communities, church groups, family reunions bus up in these massive buses from all over the country, just to be able to not just see the museum opening, but to finally feel like they had a home on the National Mall, that's just something special and that I don't think I can fully put into words.

Jo Reed: You mentioned your work recovering objects from slave ship wrecks which is the museum’s Slave Wrecks Project. I’m interested in hearing more about the project

Tsione Wolde-Michael: So, this is a massive project that was based in Mozambique, Senegal, and South Africa, and in part was tracking a slave ship that had been wrecked, called the São José, which wrecked off the coast of South Africa, was a Portuguese slave ship en route from Mozambique Island to Maranhão, Brazil. And this project was really searching for objects that the world had never seen before, which were these archaeological fragments that came from what were once in the hulls of slave ships. And in particular, we were looking for those objects that we might be able to showcase in the Middle Passage section. Now, the work that we did, though, was collaborating with African terrestrial and maritime archaeologists, and building up an entire field. So, just to put it into context, there were more studies of bogs in Europe than there were of the transatlantic slave trade, at the time that we started this project, and the transatlantic slave trade is arguably the most important maritime event in human history. And part of that was because there just wasn't this critical mass of African maritime archaeologists to do the work, so you have to build up the field, and that was precisely what this project was about. Yes, objects and the material culture were a component of it, but it was really about building up the field, working with museums on the ground, many of which were working to reinterpret colonial collections, and thinking about how to build a network and to preserve these objects and stories.

Jo Reed: And you actually became a certified diver..

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Yes, I actually did the--

Jo Reed: ... so you can see the ships?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: I did, yeah. So, I actually did the diving. We had not just the archaeologists trained to do the diving, but also local community members, as well. So, on Mozambique Island, there's an amazing group of folks who have volunteered to monitor one of the sites. These are sites that are often vulnerable for folks that will come in and try to steal precious historical objects and sell them on the black market. And so, these are brave community leaders who have chosen to take the initiative, and wanted to steward their own cultural heritage. And so I trained with them, along with the archaeologists, as well, to be able to do that work.

Jo Reed: Amazing. Just amazing. And you mentioned working with Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, focusing on public history. And I read that you were working with them on the way colonial collections are interpreted, and I was really interested in that. Can you tell me a little bit more?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Sure. So, oftentimes, in colonial perspectives and museums, and we still see this on plantation sites today, a focus on looking at the beautiful craftsmanship, instead of actually telling a story that humanizes the people who were in bonded labor, and forced to make those beautiful crafts or objects that you're looking at, right? Even people who have the best of intentions, and who wanted to be able to tell those stories, would lament and say, "Well, we just don't have enough first-person accounts," or, "We don't have enough objects to tell those stories." But, really, if you take a look at one object, and you flip it, you definitely can tell those stories. So, for one example, in a museum on Mozambique Island looking at this beautifully crafted cradle for a baby which was used by the slaveholders to put their children in, and that was an object that was slave-made. And so, you can tell a story that thinks about, what does it mean for a person to have to first develop a craft; secondly, create this beautiful object, and do so knowing that they can't provide the same amount of care to their own child. Certainly, having to create this piece would take time: time that they would've spent away from their own children, as well. And so it gives you kind of a different angle to look at the same object, but tell a different story: one that's more inclusive, and also more relevant to the publics who are actually engaging with it on a day-to-day basis.

Jo Reed: Well, you became the founding director of the Center for Restorative History, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.  What is restorative history?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: I'm happy that you asked that. Restorative history is a theory and methodology that my colleagues and I put forward at the National Museum of American History, and I'll give you some background on how we arrived at it, and also what it is. So, I think I came to the National Museum of American History at a really dynamic time. It was trying to really thoughtfully revamp its public image, as being an incredibly inclusive institution, whereas I think the public reputation was one that it didn't have that kind of diversity, in terms of its collections, or what was actually on the floor. And I think I also came at this moment when a lot of museums were pivoting to say, "Oh, we're going to do social justice work," but they did so without having a real accounting of the harms that they had participated in. And it goes back to kind of the truth and reconciliation work. You can't have reconciliation without truth-telling first. And so, the Center for Restorative History was a way of institutionalizing and implementing that work that was focused on redress. So, redress, I see, is both a noun and a verb. It's a practice and a process, and it means to really set things as right as possible, as defined by historically harmed communities. And what restorative history does is it builds on the principles of restorative justice practice, and it works with historically harmed communities to, first, identify what the historical harm was; identify, secondly, what their present needs are; and, thirdly, to discuss what the institution's obligation is to the community. And those are key principles of restorative justice practice, but what restorative history does is it also address one critical gap that restorative justice practitioners readily admit that they struggle with, and that's to have a serious examination of root causes. And it's a unique intervention, of course, for the field of public history, because looking at root causes, and doing so through the study of history, is exactly what our purpose is. And so, the center's work was really to redress these exclusions in our national story, engaging with communities that have historically been harmed, and using these principles of restorative justice to center the knowledge and the expertise of communities, and to work with them to create projects and products that didn't just document their histories, but also address their present needs, and help to make history, especially at the national level, more accurate and inclusive.

Jo Reed:  Can you an example of some of the programs you worked on at the Center. I think it might us to understand how restorative history works in practice.

Tsione Wolde-Michael: The work of the Center for Restorative History involved a variety of programs. Some of the projects that we have include the “Undocumented Organizing Collecting Initiative,” which is a multiyear collecting initiative that works across six sites, most of which are in the United States-- North Carolina, California, Nebraska, Chicago, D.C.-- and Mexico City, to really document this incredible movement of undocumented organizers who, despite not having citizenship or voting rights, are actually working to change national policy. And there's only a few moments in history where people without citizenship or voting rights have actually done that. We've also created an internship program for formally incarcerated adults. It's the first of its kind, at any museum or public history institution in the country, and it really creates a pipeline for communities that have historically been excluded from the museum field, to gain that kind of professional experience, but also to add to our knowledge and perspectives of the work that we're doing. There's also the “Reckoning with Remembrance” Project, which was both an exhibit and public program, and includes ongoing work with the rural community of Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, and that work was to really highlight a community's effort to preserve Emmett Till's memory. And they did so, really, at great risk to their personal safety. And it's also a story that connects the history of Till to the ongoing fight against anti-black violence. And so that project, as all of the center's projects-- these are just a few-- really pushes the boundaries of museum practice; so, really questioning things like co-curation, for instance. So, what are the boundaries of shared authority? Who has the final say in terms of determining what goes on the museum floor? What words appear on museum script, what location is chosen-- those were all things that we did: fully co-curated with the community, with them having final authority. And we're really proud that we did that.  It also rethinks the idea of ownership, which is really about a lot of the legal bounds of museum practice, and also consent. When we think about oral histories, at what point does a person have the consent to retract statements? These are all things that change the power dynamic, as well, when you're engaging with large institutions and communities that have experienced harm, in many cases by either the very institution or the broader profession.

Jo Reed: You have such a rich and varied career as a public historian. Why did you want to take on the role as Executive Director of PCAH?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: You know, I think it's a natural extension of the work, and where my career has been building to, and I think the most compelling part about being Executive Director of the President's Committee of the Arts and Humanities is the opportunity for impact. First, my career, as I mentioned, has really been founded on starting these large-scale projects from the ground up. And so what better opportunity, and what better time, to help reinstitute PCAH, and to do so under such a broad executive order that really highlights the importance of marginalized communities and their voices; spotlights equity, as well; and touches on these important areas of how the arts and humanities can also help promote public-private partnerships and interagency cooperation, but in ways that make the work more effective, and also have more meaningful impact on the ground. Those are the things that motivate me the most, in coming to this position.

Jo Reed: Are there any key takeaways that you can bring from your previous experiences to your work at PCAH?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Yeah. I think that the themes of truth-telling, and bringing marginalized voices into public dialogue, and the importance of justice work, and also recommending policies based on the stated needs of communities on the ground, not through a top-down model, those are things that are not just interests for me. Those, I think, are a fundamental part of the tradition of black museums that raised me. And I think that, as I lead strategy and engagement for PCAH, of course, while working in concert with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for Humanities, all of these things are front of mind, and are highly applicable to the work of PCAH.

Jo Reed: You are the first African American to head PCAH, you're the first historian to head PCAH, and you're the youngest person to head PCAH. What's the significance of that, do you think?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: I think that-- well, <laughs> all of those things together, it's a lot of firsts, right?

Jo Reed: A lot of firsts. We got three in one sentence.

<both laugh>

Tsione Wolde-Michael: I think that each come with their own significance. You know, obviously, it's a privilege to be making all of those firsts. I think, to be the first black individual leading PCAH is an incredible opportunity, but it's also timely. And I would say the same is true for being the youngest person to lead PCAH. This is a period of time where we have seen young people make their voices heard, and show that they have a strong vision for leadership, politically, and also in the realm of arts and humanities. And so it's a real privilege to be able to represent those interests and concerns, in my direction of PCAH. Of course, as the first African American, it's timely, as I mentioned, but I also think aligns very nicely with the administration's interest in equity, and diversity, and representation of historically marginalized groups, as well. And I hope to be able to, again, ensure that those perspectives are represented in PCAH's work, as well. And being a historian and someone who comes from the field, I think, is really important, and it's why I see the work of PCAH not just working parallel to the three major cultural agencies that I mentioned, but it's really about thinking about how to better coordinate, how to integrate that work, and how to make sure that it's showing up on the ground, in really important ways, and using PCAH to bolster the existing work that folks are already doing on the ground, and kind of mechanizing it in that way, across the agencies.

Jo Reed: How do you see the relationship between history and the arts?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Yeah, I really appreciate that question. I think that history and humanities, in general, can serve as an anchor for the arts; and arts, in turn, offers a creative and imaginative vehicle to think about potential futures when we think about how it relates to humanities. And so, it's a dialectic, and I see the two as being equally important to the other.

Jo Reed: And PCAH is coming back into existence during a difficult time for the arts sector, that's still reeling from the pandemic, and during this long-overdue racial reckoning and a burgeoning of new conversations. And I wonder if and how you see PCAH responding to both.

Tsione Wolde-Michael: I think that PCAH's work in the arts will inevitably connect to the type of reckoning work that we saw. On the one hand, there's the mandate of this executive order to really think about the ways that PCAH can help invigorate creative industries around the arts, which, in part, is-- you know, so many communities have suffered during the pandemic--, and so it's thinking about how to look at the ways that people have been creatively resilient, and be able to support that, but also think about new initiatives that also might provide those supports. With regard to the public reckoning, I think PCAH has to be responsive to that. We were in an environment where publics around the globe were pushing art, and also history institutions-- truly, across the globe-- to be more relevant to their publics, to have more diversified storytelling, to have diversified staff and hiring practices, and I think the work of PCAH supports the progressive direction of the field in that way.

Jo Reed: You've had so much experience as a public historian, dealing with arts and humanities, and I would like you to talk about just some of the ways you've seen the arts and humanities contribute to a more just and equitable society.

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Sure. As I mentioned, I really see humanities as an anchor. It allows us to reflect critically on our past, and to understand it with a depth that really helps us make sense of our present moment. And so, I think humanities and humanities-based projects have always been at the forefront, though not always recognized as such, in helping to really educate and to shift the narrative in ways that are important and incredibly productive. I think, on the arts side, as I mentioned before, art gives us the space to be imaginative, and to think about our futures. I've loved the recent revival in thinking about Afrofuturism. I think it's an example of some really exciting, but also productive, work that allows us to simultaneously think about aspects of the past that are little known, or have yet to be unearthed, while also thinking about speculative futures in a way that's exciting, and that allows us to think beyond the bounds of traditional disciplines, or even what we think might be possible. And that's really what I see as the potential of the arts.

Jo Reed: And then, finally, why is PCAH so important? What do you think, finally, its significance is?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: I think PCAH has this unique function.  It has a mandate to work across federal government, and there's really no other entity that has the opportunity to work with almost every single department <laughs> of federal government and agencies, to really think about how we can be creative in reviving work on the arts and humanities, and supporting it in ways that are sustainable, long term. You know, the arts and humanities have also been in a vulnerable position, and so I think, by having PCAH reconstituted in this way, it is standing on its importance for our democracy; for civic society, as well. And having that strong statement, and such a bold vision in the executive order, in particular, is something that I think is incredibly encouraging.

Jo Reed: Okay, I think that is a great place to leave it. Tsione, thank you so much. I really appreciate you giving me your time.

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That was the executive director of PCAH, Tsione Wolde-Michael. The White House is expected to name the 25 non-federal committee members in the coming weeks. Keep checking arts.gov for updates or follow us on Twitter @NEAarts.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at artworkspod@arts.gov. And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


In this podcast,  we meet Tsione Wolde-Michael, the new executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH.) Wolde-Michael talks about her background growing up in the twin cities as a first-generation child born to Ethiopian immigrants, her pull toward history, and her desire to work in public history where she was able to do transformative work that would reach a broad and diverse audience. We discuss her time as part of the inaugural staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, her work on the exhibit “Slavery and Freedom” and the museum’s Slave Wrecks Project, her founding of the Center of Restorative History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and some of the center’s programs. Wolde-Michael gives us a little background about the history of PCAH and President Biden’s recent executive order, which not only reinstituted PCAH but expanded its mission.  She also discusses moving from her role as public historian to directing PCAH and the ways in which her previous experience prepared her for this new appointment.

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