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Museums are so powerful for the way they tell the stories of history. I just want to be sure they are telling those stories in a way that’s inclusive.

Ashleigh Smith, Class of 2020

Ashleigh Smith’s art history career might have started with Empire, the dramatic musical TV series that debuted on Fox in 2015. She was quickly hooked and right away she noticed stunning works of art in Lucious Lyon’s fictional office and home. She recognized paintings by Nina Chanel Abney, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley, among others.

“It became a running joke,” Ashleigh said, “that I could name all the art on the walls in Empire.”

Back when Ashleigh was still a high school student in St. Louis, Missouri, she visited the Nasher Museum for the first time as part of a weekend visit with a Duke student. She walked through Reality of My Surroundings: The Contemporary Collection and left the exhibition in tears, she said. “It just touched me in a way that I knew the Nasher was the reason that Duke was the right school for me.”

Ashleigh applied early decision and arrived at Duke in 2016. She set her sights on a pre-law track and forged ahead with plans to become a human rights attorney. Her mentor at Duke, Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center, noticed Ashleigh’s deep love for art and encouraged her to explore that. Ashleigh switched her major to art history with a Concentration in Museum Studies. How did Ashleigh’s parents react to this change in plan? “It took some convincing at first,” she said.

She had already invested a lot in studying the law. She worked as an intern for the Missouri Family Law Courts for two years. Ashleigh is still working for social justice as an art history major, she said. Instead of changing the world from inside the court system, she will work to make museums more inclusive. She wants to become a socially conscious curator and have the power to give artists of color more space on museum gallery walls.

“It’s a way for me to be an activist,” she said. “It’s a way for me to share my voice in a medium that’s important to me.”

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view article on American Alliance of Museums | Published January 16, 2019

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