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"Building a National Museum,"

by Lonnie G Bunch, III November/December 2011 issue of Poverty & Race


When construction starts on the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Fall of 2012, it will signal a beginning for some. For those of us who have been involved with the Museum’s development, however, the groundbreaking will be more like rounding the clubhouse turn on a long, fast and furious race to the building’s opening on the National Mall in 2015.

Calls for a national museum recognizing the contributions of African Americans to the building and defense of the nation date back to the early 1900s. Two World Wars, a Depression and political opposition, however, prevented any progress until 1988, when Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, introduced a bill in Congress.

Still, it would be more than a decade before Congress created a Presidential Commission on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2002.

Finally, in 2003, nearly 100 years after the first appeals, President George W. Bush signed a bill establishing the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Board of Regents, the governing body of the Institution, voted in January 2006 to build the Museum on a five-acre site on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets NW. This site is between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The new museum, the Smithsonian’s 19th, will be the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture.

The enabling legislation also established a council for the Museum to advise the Smithsonian Regents on such museum matters as recommendations on the Museum’s planning, design and construction; the Museum’s administration; and acquisition of objects for the Museum’s collections. The Museum’s 25- member council, similar to a board of directors, is a veritable who’s who of the corporate and business world, including American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault; former BET founder and CEO Robert Johnson; and music impresarios Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, just to name a few. Recent additions to the council include former First Lady Laura Bush and former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell.

In early 2005, I was chosen to be the Museum’s founding director. At the time, I was President of the Chicago Historical Society, one of America’s oldest museums of history. Prior to that, I spent a number of years in various positions at the Smithsonian. From 1994 to 2000, I was Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of American History. From 1978 to 1979, I was an education specialist at the National Air and Space Museum, where I developed multi-cultural instructional programs and researched and wrote the history of African Americans in aviation.

I knew returning to the Smithsonian as director of this new museum was an opportunity not to be missed. I realized that my job at the Chicago Historical Society fulfilled my soul, but helping to build the National Museum would nurture the souls of my ancestors.

A Museum for All

As I go about the daunting task of building a museum and finding the objects that will fill it, my vision for the institution is that it will be one that speaks to all Americans, not just African Americans. This is not a museum that celebrates black history solely for black Americans. Rather, I see this history as America's history. We will use African-American history and culture as a lens into what it means to be an American.

Visitors don’t have to wait for the Museum to open in 2015. Exhibitions and events are going on right now. Through collaboration with IBM, the first phase of the Museum on the Web was launched in September 2007. MOW offers interactive programs and educational resources for people of all ages. A prominent feature of the website is the Memory Book, which allows site visitors to share family stories, photographs and intergenerational conversations.

The Museum opened its inaugural exhibition in May 2007 at the International Center of Photography in New York in a unique collaboration with that museum and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, from whose collection the exhibition images were drawn. The exhibition,“Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Photographs,” is on a national tour through 2012.

In January 2009, the museum opened its own gallery in space provided by my friends at American History, which is being used to mount exhibitions until the new building is completed. The first exhibition presented in the gallery was “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise,” featuring more than 100 photos taken by one of Washington, DC’s preeminent African-American photographers.

The third exhibition organized by the Museum and the second opened in the NMAAHC Gallery in April 2010, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment,” also made national tour stops in a number of U.S. cities, including New York, Detroit, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

The Museum recently opened its latest exhibition, “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” The multi-media exhibition examines the role that images played in the fight for racial equality. It features photographs, TV and movie clips, magazines, newspapers, posters, books, pamphlets and other media.

One of my first priorities at the Museum was to create “Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation.” In this series of daylong workshops, participants work with conservation specialists and historians to learn to identify and preserve items of historical value ranging from photographs and jewelry to military uniforms and textiles. Instruction is offered through hands-on activities, audio-visual presentations and a 30-page guidebook developed by the Museum. Launched in Chicago in January 2008, “Treasures” workshops have been held in cities around the country, including Atlanta, Charleston, SC, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and Washington, DC.

Museum Design and Construction

The Smithsonian held a design competition that attracted entries by architects from around the world. Six firms were chosen as finalists and asked to submit a formal proposal for the design of the new Museum. In April 2009, I chaired a jury that selected Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup as the architectural team to design the Museum. The Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye, who has offices in Berlin, London and New York, is the lead designer.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to work with this talented team. Their vision and spirit of collaboration moved all members of the design competition jury. I am confident that they will give us a building that will be an important addition to the National Mall and to the architecture of this city.


Even as I was choosing an architect to build the Museum, curators were already busy looking for the artifacts that will fill it. In addition to its central hall, the Museum is slated to have galleries focusing on history, culture and community. Within the history galleries will be exhibitions on slavery; the period following Reconstruction into the 20th Century and the civil rights era; and the years after 1968.

The culture galleries will include ones on music, sports, visual arts and one entitled the Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA). CAAMA will be a specialized resource that will house extensive collections of various media, including photographs, films, recordings and other items relating to the African Diaspora. CAAMA will also provide onsite expertise and web access to images from other Smithsonian Institution collections, as well as important holdings housed at external institutions.

The community galleries will be titled “Power of Place,” “Making a Way out of No Way” and “Military History.” The “Power of Place” gallery will immerse visitors in the broad diversity of African-American life in different regions across the United States. Through interactive, multi-media technologies, visitors will explore the themes of place and region.

The “Making a Way…” gallery will feature themed stories that will show how African Americans crafted possibilities in a world that denied them opportunities.

I recently hired Ralph Appelbaum Associates, planners, designers and producers of award-winning museum exhibitions, visitor centers and educational environments, to design the galleries.

So far, the Museum has acquired roughly 11,000 objects, including art, photographs, costumes and fashion accessories, musical instruments, sports-related objects and many others. Among objects recently acquired are The Mothership—the iconic stage prop made famous by legendary funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic; the set from Soul Train, the longest running syndicated program in American history; and we will soon accept delivery of a PT-13 Stearman bi-plane used to train the Tuskegee Airmen.

One of my favorite objects in the collection is a beautifully engraved powder horn with a stopper, with the inscription: “Prince Simbo his horn made at Glastenbury November 17th AD 1777.” This powder horn was used during the American Revolution by a black soldier and former slave, Prince Simbo, a resident of Glastenbury, Connecticut. Simbo served as a private in the Seventh Regiment, Connecticut Line of the Continental Army. Related documents include a payment note to Prince Simbo; a manuscript document listing the cost of supplies for eleven soldiers, including Prince Simbo; and a manuscript document providing blankets for two black soldiers, Sampson Freeman and Prince Simbo. With this and other compelling material, the Museum will present the rich history of African Americans who served in the U.S. military.

For some, the year 2015 may seem far away. But not for me and my staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We still have a lot of work to do. We are in a race with time, and we can see the finish line in the distance.

Lonnie G Bunch, III is Founding Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 While you are waiting for the National Museum of African American History & Culture to open, there are currently two related Smithsonian exhibits of interest (one co-produced by the Museum, both on the National Mall near the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial):

RACE: Are We So Different? currently on view at the National Museum of Natural History (until January 8, 2012)

For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, at the National Museum of American History (until November 27, 2011)—in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History & Culture

And be sure to visit the wonderful exhibits at the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, 1925 Vermont Ave. NW

In a related development, The United States National Slavery Museum, an organization founded by former Virginia Governor Douglas L. Wilder to build a museum in Fredericksburg, VA, to have opened several years ago, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
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