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Wilson, Christopher

Director of Experience Design

Positions

Public Biography

  • Chris is Director of Experience Design at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where his team of more than 500 staff and volunteers creates and implements the daily program and visitor experience for nearly five million annual visitors to the nation’s history museum. Experience Design facilitates meaningful personal experiences and conversations to engage and inspire visitors through history, promote dialogue, build lasting relationships, stimulate interactive learning, while striving to treat each visitor as an honored guest. Chris arrived at the Smithsonian Institution in 2004, thrilled and humbled to direct the Program in African American Culture History and Culture, founded one of his heroes and mentors, the incredible activist, scholar, and artist Bernice Johnson Reagon. Building off the program’s long history of researching, preserving and presenting the African American experience often through the voices of those with living memory of periods like the Civil Rights Movement, Chris took it as his mission to enrich the experience of every visitor by offering them a glimpse into the rich history of black Americans and an understanding that the American experience springs from many diverse stories. Chris has been particularly innovative and dynamic since joining the Smithsonian team. He has created several major program series and produced groundbreaking work as he seeks to engage as many people as possible in learning from the past to make a better future. Chris created the Museum’s award-winning historic theater programs, which offer interactive, personal presentations of stories of America’s past that resonate in the nation’s present. His interactive plays exploring the Civil Rights Movement have engaged more than 1 million visitors at the Smithsonian, National Parks Service sites, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Capitol, the Department of Justice, and the White House, as well as online. Chris has just completed a new full-length play, Crampton 1961, telling the story of students at Howard University who orchestrated a debate between Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin intended to inspire more young people to join the burgeoning movement. Chris created the National Youth Summit series of programming, including programs on the Freedom Rides (2011), the Dust Bowl (2012), Abolition and Modern Day Slavery (2013), and Freedom Summer (2014), and The War on Poverty (2015), and Japanese Incarceration in World War II (2016). The Summit attempts to bring as many high school students as possible together across the nation and world on the same day to discuss an issue from the past that has relevance in the present. The Summit has engaged more than 100,000 high school students in conversation with scholars, activists, relevant history, and each other. In 2015, Chris created the History Film Forum, America’s premier film festival focused on history. The Forum brings together experts and audiences to examine the state of narrative and documentary film, television, and video as vehicles for teaching and interpreting history. The Forum is unique in its connection of audiences, historians, filmmakers, journalists, and policy leaders at our National Museum. As a scholar, Chris studies the Civil Rights Movement, interviewing veterans of the movement and accessing materials in the Smithsonian archives. In 2010, he led efforts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins including an online Youth Town Hall with the Greensboro Four. In 2005 Chris created We Shall Overcome: The 40th Anniversary of the Voting Rights March, a theatrical and musical tribute to the civil rights activists who put their bodies on the line to bring about the Voting Rights Act. Also in 2005 he presented Robert Williams and the Origins of Black Power, exploring issues of self-defense and empowerment in the civil rights movement. He has directed the Museum’s annual celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. Chris has worked on several exhibitions at the National Museum of American History including Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life (2008) and American Democracy (2017). He has written articles on public history for Smithsonian Magazine, The American Historian, and Zocalo Public Square. Chris presented, planned, and supervised public programs and exhibitions for eighteen years at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, before coming to the Smithsonian. He concentrated on agricultural history, including running the Firestone Farm, a working restoration of the Columbiana County, Ohio sheep farm that was the birthplace of tire magnet Harvey Firestone. He also presented stories of slavery and freedom in Maryland and Georgia, 19th century baseball, and civil rights, including exhibition and programming related to Montgomery, Alabama bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Chris holds a B. A. in history and English language and literature from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in history from Wayne State University. He completed the Smithsonian’s Palmer Leadership Development Program in 2014 and teaches in the Museum Studies Program at the extension school at Harvard University.