by Nikia Brown
With an air of nostalgia, Naomi Nelson, the new Executive Director of Belmont Mansion, took me on a journey through the corridors of what she calls a, “dynamic universe.” When Nelson began working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the age of 22, she had no idea that it would lead to a lifelong career in museum education. This experience far exceeded any expectations she had about working in a creative environment and unlocked a deeper passion for art and culture. The staff and guest lecturers at the Art Museum inspired Nelson to pursue an education in art history and theater. “Museums have the ability to create dynamic change,” she says.
The guest exhibitor, Charles Searles, in particular, opened the door for Nelson to meet artists who laid the foundation for African American Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
Charles wanted to change the narrative; he wanted to create a platform where African-American artists weren’t on the periphery, but in the main galleries,” she said proudly. Since that time, Nelson has committed her life to making information about African American art, history, and culture more accessible to all groups of people.
From 2003- 2007, Nelson served as the Vice President of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. While leading programs on past and contemporary forms of slavery, Nelson realized that “the freedom for Black artists to be recognized as legitimate artists by mainstream America is not separate from the ultimate struggle for freedom for all Black people.” “The Underground Railroad provides a template for people of diverse backgrounds to come together for a common goal,” she asserts. “How can we create a construct for the future if we do not know our past?” she asked rhetorically.
In her new role as Executive Director at Belmont Mansion, she hopes to build on Audrey Thorton’s 30-year legacy as President. She believes the Underground Railroad exhibit at the Mansion offers the proper lens to link historical slavery to contemporary slavery in an engaging way.
“We must lay the groundwork for the future by building on the past,” she says. Nelson references the crimes against Black people in Ferguson, New York, and Charleston as “violations on humanity.” She and her staff are currently training the youth in their Youth Docent Summer Program to address the crimes of today by reenacting the past. In this program, students reenact scenes from the abolitionist movement in first person narratives. The group recently delivered a performance at a major NAACP convention right here in Philadelphia. “I do not want millennials to be lost in this dialogue about the struggle for freedom,” cries Nelson. She sees the Underground Railroad Legacy Series as an “intergenerational, multidisciplinary” tool that can facilitate difficult and painful conversations.
Moving forward, Nelson hopes to “create collaborations that carry the mission and narrative of Belmont Mansion.” She strongly believes that the success of programs and exhibits hinges on the support of community partners. During our interview, Nelson lists a number of ways community members can get involved and further the mission of the organization. Belmont Mansion has a large, newly renovated space that is available for rent. The funds from rentals help to “maintain the property, satisfy operation costs, and bolster programs,” says Nelson. She also encourages community members to book individual or group tours, volunteer, or make a donation to the Youth Docent Summer Program. If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information about Belmont Mansion, you can visit their website at http://www.belmontmansion.org.