President Joe Biden has named Tsione Wolde-Michael, the director of the Center for Restorative History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., as executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). She is first Black head of the committee and the youngest person ever to assume the post.
The committee was disbanded during the Trump administration in 2017 after its members resigned en masse in protest of the former president’s response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. PCAH was formerly reinstated in October through an executive order signed by Biden.
“I’ve spent my career as a public historian launching large-scale projects from the ground up and working to transform understandings of our nation’s past,” Wolde-Michael said in a statement. “President Biden’s new executive order supports telling a fuller, more expansive American story through the arts and humanities; it recognizes that these areas are essential to the vitality of our democracy while centering equity, accessibility and the inclusion of historically underserved communities in an unprecedented way.”
Wolde-Michael, a graduate of Macalester College and Harvard University, is often focuses on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade in her work. She began her museum career at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), where she helped develop its inaugural exhibition “Slavery and Freedom.” She has also been involved in the NMAAHC’s Slave Wrecks Project, an international coalition of maritime archaeologists who search and study sunken slave ships to better understand the histories connected to these voyages.
As executive director of PCAH, Wolde-Michael will lead a 25-person advisory board of leaders in the arts and humanities field whose names will soon be announced by the White House. The committee helps the President create new methods of promoting art in the country, such as suggesting policy changes and partnerships with cultural institutions, as well as increasing funding to community-centered spaces like museums and libraries. She will work closely with the director of the Institute of Museum and Library and Services, Crosby Kemper, as well as the chairs of the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Maria Rosario Jackson and Shelly C. Lowe, respectively.
“Through her work for the Smithsonian, Wolde-Michael has shown herself to be an extraordinarily talented curator and historian with an ability to engage communities through innovative and impactful exhibitions and public history projects that illuminate the ways history shapes both our country and daily lived experience,” Lowe said in a statement. “She brings to the position a deep understanding of the issues of vital concern for museums, archives, historic sites and other cultural institutions, and a passion for using the humanities to help build a more just and equitable society.”
PCAH was established in 1982 during the Reagan administration to advise the White House on arts and humanities policy; the First Lady traditionally serves as its honorary chairwoman. During a ceremony held at the White House inn October to commemorate the reinstatement of the committee, Biden described the arts as “essential to the well-being, health, vitality and democracy of our nation.”
The move came a year after 15 lawmakers called for the PCAH to be reestablished, citing a report from an arts and sciences commission that reported heavy losses to the country’s $150 billion creative sector as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.