Telling the Story of African American Music

Dina Bennett, director of collections and curatorial affairs at the American Jazz Museum (photo by Jim Barcus)

A Topeka native, Dina Bennett became director of collections and curatorial affairs at the American Jazz Museum in 2018, bringing a distinguished record to the post. She arrived here from Nashville, where she was founding curatorial director at the National Museum of African American Music, after previously serving as associate director of operations and programs at the Mulvane Art Museum at Washburn University in Topeka, director of education at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Mississippi, and manager of collections and exhibitions at the American Jazz Museum. Bennett holds a B.A. in communication studies from Washburn University, an M.A. in college student personnel from Kansas State University, and a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology with a minor in African American and African diaspora studies from Indiana University. An accomplished pianist, she spent several of her younger years as a minister of music at her Baptist Church.

HS: What professional experiences have influenced your curatorial practice the most?

DB: My professional experience at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Mississippi, profoundly influenced and impacted my life and my work. To be able to live and experience the Mississippi Delta where so much of African American history is rooted gives you a rich foundation in African American culture and the legacy of African American music beginning with the blues and all the other music genres that grew out of it.

HS: What did your tenure as the founding curatorial director of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville entail?

DB: The National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) opened on MLK Day in January 2021. It is the first national institution dedicated to studying, preserving, educating about, and celebrating more than 50 music genres and subgenres that were created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans. While there, I oversaw the museum’s curatorial department and served as the primary curator for the permanent exhibition titled “Rivers of Rhythm: African Americans and the Making of American Music.” As the founding curatorial director, I was able to grow and stretch my knowledge and skillset to design and build a museum from the ground up. I feel honored to have carried that responsibility and to have created something monumental for the masses to enjoy and to benefit from.

HS: How did your upbringing in the Black church and training as a pianist/organist influence your choice of career?

DB: My background influenced and impacted my choice of career, but not until later in my life when I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. I studied ethnomusicology and African American and African diaspora studies because I wanted to understand more about the people, why they created the music, and I wanted to weave stories around the artifacts and preserve material culture. And I wanted to do all of this within the context of the museum. 

I grew up in a musical household with a father who played in an R&B band with his brother. While his brother was the band leader, Dad was the bassist, harmonica player, and lead singer. So, he had a profound influence on my musical pedigree. And later in life when I became the minister of music in my Baptist church, I would accompany Dad as he sang gospel music as well as the youth and adult choirs.

At the age of 7, I attended the Melody Brown Fun Factory, a local musical arts camp formerly held on the Washburn University campus. They saw some musical ability in me, and they offered to give me piano lessons for free. I took piano lessons until I graduated from high school and participated in marching band and concert band as a clarinetist.

HS: What does your position as director of collections and curatorial affairs at the American Jazz Museum involve?

DB: I am responsible for overseeing the collections and curatorial affairs department, which consists of myself, Registrar Morgan Smith and Exhibition Coordinator Chloe Willett. This position oversees the institutional archives of the museum and all loans and exhibits as well as manages the permanent collection as it relates to special exhibitions, research, interpretive and educational program use, conservation and preservation. 

I am currently working with our team on planning and designing our 25th Anniversary Exhibition for September 2022. We are excited to showcase artifacts from our collection that have never been seen before in this exhibition. We are also in discussion as to what our next 25 years looks like at the museum and are hoping to re-envision our exhibit and interactive offerings in the very near future.  

HS: In these trying times, how can visiting collections at institutions like the American Jazz Museum or the National Museum of African American Music help us to retain our sense of humanity?

DB: The collections at these institutions reveal that we all have the ability to love music and to be moved by it in special ways. Music serves as the soundtrack to our lives, and we all share that commonality.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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