W.E.B. DuBois’s face greets me as soon as I step off the elevator and into the Hutchins Center. His mural on the wall is my first indication of the work that happens here, and I’m instantly aware that I’m stepping into a very special space. The W.E.B. DuBois Research Institute is the “anchor” of the Hutchins Center, according to Executive Director Abby Wolf, and DuBois’s perceptive and trailblazing spirit lives on in the aims of this place.
The Hutchins Center is an institution dedicated to researching the culture and history of Africans worldwide, essentially a specialized organization designed to explore every nook and cranny of this one area of study. From hip-hop to heritage, gallery tours to guest speakers, the Hutchins Center leaves nothing out of the equation.
I’m greeted at the front desk by a woman who seems taken aback when I ask if I can “explore” to “get a feel for the place.” She gives me a polite and confused “Not usually?” and I soon realize I’m in the administrative offices of the Hutchins Center, just one part of the institute that’s spread out across so many different vessels of Harvard life.
The Hutchins Center encompasses a wide variety of venues and ways of experiencing African and African-American culture. The Hiphop Archive and Research Institute, the Afro-Latin American Research Institute, and the Image of the Black Archive and Library all fall under the Hutchins Center’s wide umbrella. The center curates art galleries, gives weekly tours, keeps up research in an important and relevant field of study, puts out two different publications, juggles multiple revolving projects, and more.
As I poke around the offices, I’m struck mostly by the art on the walls—the Hutchins Center runs two separate art galleries, but the art on the walls of their administrative wing is a display in itself. I marvel at a particular set of pieces and Wolf, showing me around, notes that they are created by artist Suesan Stovall. Multimedia focused with many layers, Stovall’s work features everything from newspaper clippings to mismatched buttons to mini tin spoons. The artistic style is unique and fresh, an impression I get in every component of the Hutchins Center. It’s certainly a style they’re proud of. “I want that in my dorm!” I say, and we both laugh.
One of the most unique projects of the Hutchins Center, and perhaps the most relevant to youth culture, is the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute, which features colorful Nike sneakers, gold chains, spray-paint cans, and a Notorious B.I.G. figurine. Aside from its impressive collection of gear, the Hiphop Archive is an exciting and special learning, creating, and researching space unique in its focus topic and the leader in its field of research.
I’m disappointed that I can’t poke around the Hiphop Archive without an appointment, but everything I gather from material online and outsider opinions tells me that I’ve got to make the trip back soon. The graffiti-style writing on the walls, which boast in loud print “Build. Respect. Represent,” the incredible collection of interesting and relevant artifacts, the fresh and exciting feel of the place as a whole—it’s a contemporary student’s dream. It probably won’t look half bad on Instagram either.
Wolf notes casually, with a slight hint of pride, that the Hiphop Archive has even hosted some Hiphop artists. Her offhandedness leads me to believe this can’t be anyone major, yet she follows up by name-dropping J.Cole and Chance the Rapper, who have both visited the Hiphop Archive. Wolf laughs as I get excited (“I love J.Cole!”) and says that “they don’t mean as much to me as they do to you.”