As the nation faces a transitional time, pondering President Obama’s legacy and worrying about changes in the future, one institution hopes to concretize a narrative of vast importance to our collective history, one of the largest and most hard-fought pursuits of justice in America whose enduring pain Obama’s victories have only begun to rectify. On Saturday, Sept. 24, the Smithsonian will open its permanent monument to this story in Washington, D.C., in the form of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
Echoing the myriad struggles of the people it honors, the NMAAHC has a long and fraught backstory itself. After African-American Civil War veterans proposed a memorial on the National Mall in 1915, versions of the idea floated through Congress throughout subsequent years.
In 1988, Civil Rights activist Rep. John Lewis helped introduce legislation to create an African-American history museum within the Smithsonian, which was ultimately rejected. Lewis proposed it again in 2001 and, following a report entitled “The Time Has Come,” the “National Museum of African American History and Culture Act” was finally passed in 2003.
“[I]t’s about time!” exclaimed Interim Director for the Campus Life ALANA Center Wendy Maragh Taylor. “The museum’s soon opening is recognition of the necessary connections that must be made between African-American history and the development of the United States. There have been contributions galore that have unacknowledged and without which this great nation would not be, well, quite so great.”
The fight did not stop there, however, as the new museum had to find a space to occupy, an unfortunately fitting analogy. Many legislators resisted the push to build the NMAAHC on the crowded Mall, but a spot was ultimately chosen between the National Museum of American History (NMAH) and the Washington Monument.
“Its place on the National Mall is significant in its own right,” wrote Associate Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies Quincy T. Mills in an emailed statement. “The presence of the Martin Luther King Memorial and now the NMAAHC counters and begins to make more whole the narratives of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and the war memorials.”
The five-story museum, designed by Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye, features brown filigreed exterior paneling inspired by West African-rooted latticework done by African-American artisans.
The design—three inverted-pyramid tiers— resembles ancient Yoruban sculpture or, alternatively, hands lifted in prayer, and stands out among the stately National Mall buildings. As one reporter put it, “[I]t’s as if Beyoncé, in one of her bejeweled costumes, strutted into a Wall Street meeting filled with gray suits” (National Geographic, “Black America’s Story, Told Like Never Before,” 10.2016).
Next came considerable fundraising—half of the $540 million initial cost was provided by the government, while the other half came from public and private donations—and building a collection from scratch. The NMAAHC held “Antiques Roadshow”-style events in 15 cities, asking for heirlooms with significance to African-American history..
The museum now holds 40,000 objects, about 3,500 of which will be on display in the opening exhibitions.
As NMAAHC Founding Director and former NMAH curator Lonnie G. Bunch III reflected, “The defining experience of African-American life has been the necessity of making a way out of no way, of mustering the nimbleness, ingenuity and perseverance to establish a place in this society” (Smithsonian Magazine, “The Definitive Story of How the National Museum of African American History and Culture Came to Be,” 09.2016).
Donations came from far and wide, and the sources were as diverse as the history and the objects themselves. Examples include Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, donated by a man whose relatives Tubman helped escape to freedom; Althea Gibson’s tennis racket, donated by a second cousin; and Nat Turner’s Bible, donated by the descendant of a family who once owned Turner as a slave (New York Times, “‘I, Too, Sing America’: The National Museum of African American History and Culture,” 09.15.2016).
The donations were then organized into three major sections. First are the chronological historical floors. “History” displays such items as a slave auction block, a statue of Thomas Jefferson with bricks listing his slaves and Frederick Douglass’s cane.
“The Segregation Era” holds objects like Emmett Till’s original coffin, KKK hoods and the dress Rosa Parks was sewing the day she was arrested.
Finally, “1968 to Today” brings history into the modern day, with pieces as recent as a door from Hurricane Katrina, a “Justice 4 Trayvon” protest sign and information about Black Lives Matter.
The other two spaces in the museum are the “Community” and “Culture” galleries, featuring many themed rooms, from music (Jimi Hendrix’s vest, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet) to sports (Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, Jesse Owens’s cleats, Jackie Robinson’s jersey) to military service (a Tuskegee Airmen biplane) to entertainment and the arts (an “Oprah” stage set, a collection of modern and contemporary art)..
Such an ambitious scope by necessity overlooks certain elements, like, as critics have noted, the AIDS crisis and issues of gender and sexuality.
Yet overall, the NMAAHC strives to right a huge wrong in the United States, namely the sustained oppression and erasure of Black lives and identities in mainstream culture.
As Taylor commented, “From the museum’s design to the exhibitions, the story of African Americans is shared through diverse means, and incorporates the richness and brilliance of this culture and its people.”
Though a crucial first step in accurate and deserved representation, the NMAAHC cannot be the last. “I hope there will be a proliferation of other museums with a focus on specific aspects of the African-American experience, including slavery and the Great Migration,” expressed Professor of Sociology Diane Harriford.
She continued: “For some who visit the museum, I hope it will be the beginning of a much needed education about life for African-descended people in America.” She also hopes the museum provokes careful thought, from rethinking the story we tell of our nation to openness to the idea of reparations.
Whatever one takes away from the NMAAHC and its momentous opening, the museum and the story it tells are undoubtedly long overdue and will hopefully spark new and renewed dialogue about what it means to be American.
As Professor Mills summed up, “The NMAAHC has plans to not just be a static repository of public history…[but also] an open space…to connect the past and present; to think about history as a connective tissue to what is possible and just in a world not yet seen.”