in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
National Museum of African American History and Culture Moves Toward Opening
By Barbara Franco
In November 2015, the Smithsonian Institution’s long awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) plans to open its doors in a new building on the mall in Washington, D.C. The opening will come exactly one hundred years after a Civil War veterans’ organization first began collecting funds for a suitable memorial building to honor the contributions of African Americans in military service, as well as in art, literature, invention, science, industry, and other areas of human endeavor. Although Congress passed legislation authorizing construction of the memorial in 1929, the long anticipated museum had never materialized despite various commissions, site studies, and Smithsonian plans.
Nonetheless, some people never gave up on the idea of an African American museum in the nation’s capital. With bipartisan support Congress established a Presidential Commission on December 28, 2001, to create an implementation plan for a National African American Museum of History and Culture as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The commission’s plan led to legislation creating NMAAHC signed by President George W. Bush on December 16, 2003. Lonnie G. Bunch III was named Founding Director in 2005, and site selection was completed in 2006.
After five years of planning, the museum broke ground on February 22, 2012, with designs for the building and exhibits at 35 percent completion and more than $100 million in private funds raised. The building is on track to be completed by the planned opening in 2015. But bricks and mortar and fundraising are only part of the story. The museum’s mission to tell the African American story in a national context, to chronicle this history from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, and to encompass both history and culture, including the arts, presents both daunting challenges and exciting interpretive possibilities.
Director Lonnie Bunch understands that, as a national museum, NMAAHC must reach a broad and diverse audience. On the one hand, the museum must provide a rich insider’s perspective for African Americans who want see themselves and their stories told. But it must also communicate the importance of African American history and culture as a truly national story that shapes what it means to be an American in profound ways. Bunch has been insistent that exhibits and program development include both sides of this coin—insider perspective and broader themes of American identity. In this way the museum hopes to be explicit about how history can help visitors understand their lives today. Audience research conducted before exhibit planning began helped the staff realize how much excitement existed about what the museum hoped to accomplish. It also helped staff appreciate why the museum will be important to visitors as part of ongoing discussion and understanding of race.
Bunch also believed from the start that NMAAHC had to function as a museum before the building was completed. One of the first challenges was developing the collections needed to tell the long and complex story of African Americans in the United States. Understanding that current museum collections did not hold all the artifacts to tell this story, he hoped that many of the best would still be held by families and communities in homes, attics, and basements. That has proved to be the case, and more than twenty thousand objects have been acquired for the new museum, mostly through gifts. These range from large items like a training plane used by Tuskegee airmen and a Jim Crow railroad car to small personal items that tell individual stories. Among the most unexpected acquisitions are a shawl and hymnal used by Harriet Tubman that can be traced back to her last descendants.
The museum’s website has been one way that it has been able to interact with the public as a museum without walls, as a place to both collect and share stories and test new ideas. To date the website’s Memory Bank has collected approximately fifteen thousand contributions on a broad range of topics that include civil rights, activism, culture, education, and storytelling. The website has also been an important way for people to communicate with the museum about potential collections and ideas for exhibits.
Temporary exhibitions, like the newly opened Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History through October 14, 2012, has also provided NMAAHC with the opportunity to test new interpretive approaches and visitor reaction to difficult content The Jefferson exhibit, for example, looks at slaves as individuals through their personal belongings and tools they used at Monticello and as families whose stories extend over generations.
Collaboration is a core value of the museum. Its authorizing legislation includes a section on Education and Liaising Programs, which created a grant program to support African American museums nationwide in partnership with the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Bunch makes clear that although the NMAAHC, as part of the Smithsonian, is a national museum located in the nation’s capital, it cannot accomplish its mission alone. The museum credits the thousands of individuals and hundreds of institutions that have preserved and presented African American history over the years as important partners.
NMAAHC hopes to attract tourists who visit the Smithsonian museums, introduce them to African American history, and encourage them to return home and visit their own local museums. He sees NMAAHC as an entry point and a cheer leader for other African American institutions and non-African American museums that collect and interpret related subjects. The collaboration he envisages is not one of formal affiliations or structured relationships. Instead, he plans an office and staff devoted to collaborations that will be a clearinghouse for exhibitions, training, and projects. Collaboration, Bunch avers, is increasingly important because technology has made small and local museums more accessible than ever before and more able to tell their own individual stories, at the same time helping shape the national story.
Bunch is clearly committed to maintaining the highest standards of scholarship and professionalism in the new museum without downplaying the emotional impact that its subject matter may have for visitors. With fifty years of good scholarship and new research as a foundation, the NMAAHC is positioned to tell a deeper and more nuanced story than it might have if it had been built when first imagined one hundred years ago.
Visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture at http://nmaahc.si.edu
Barbara Franco has recently been appointed first executive director of the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, slated to open by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. In 2002 she served on the National Museum of African American History and Culture Plan for Action Presidential Commission. She interviewed Lonnie Bunch about plans for the NMSSHC on January 30, 2012.