New Smith­so­nian mu­seum cap­tures African Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, le­gacy


Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

— Re­silience is a key theme for the new­est Smith­so­nian cre­ation, the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture.

The mu­seum, open­ing on the Na­tional Mall Satur­day, has been in the works for 13 years, but has been an idea for decades. U. S. Rep. John Lewis ( D- Ga.) first heard about the ini­tial talks of the mu­seum when he was elected to Con­gress in 1986, ac­cord­ing to the civil rights icon’s re­cent piece in the Washington Post.

For 15 years, Lewis fought to pass leg­is­la­tion to cre­ate the mu­seum, in­tro­duc­ing it at ev­ery ses­sion of Con­gress. Fi­nally, on Dec. 16, 2003, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush signed Lewis’ dream into law.

“I knew that if I was per­sis­tent and con­sis­tent, I would at least play my role well in this ef­fort, but at most I could win a vic­tory for hu­man­ity,” Lewis said in his ar­ti­cle.

A throng of 20,000 peo­ple is ex­pected to help dig­ni­taries ded­i­cate the $ 540 mil­lion mu­seum al­most in the shadow of the Washington Mon­u­ment. High- pro­file dig­ni­taries will be led by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Bush and for­mer first lady Laura Bush. Mem­bers of the Supreme Court and Con­gress are sched­uled to at­tend, as well as Oprah Win­frey and many other prom­i­nent African Amer­i­cans.

The mu­seum tells the his­tory of the African Amer­i­can peo­ple in as­tound­ing de­tail. There are ar­ti­facts from ev­ery era — whips from the slave trade to glossy magazine cov­ers adorned with Obama’s smile.

“We felt it was cru­cial to craft a mu­seum that would help Amer­ica re­mem­ber and con­front its tor­tured racial past,” found­ing mu­seum di­rec­tor Lon­nie Bunch said. “But we also thought while Amer­ica should pon­der the pain of racial seg­re­ga­tion, it also had to find the joy, the hope, the re­siliency, the spir­i­tu­al­ity that was en­demic in this com­mu­nity.”

The re­silience of the African Amer­i­can peo­ple is por­trayed on all four lev­els of the build­ing, with the ex­hibits as­cend­ing chrono­log­i­cally, start­ing with slav­ery and end­ing at the present day.

The his­tory gal­leries make up the first three con­courses.

WASHINGTON Slav­ery & Free­dom Gal­leries

Mu­seum-go­ers be­gin their visit in the base­ment. Maps painted on the walls de­pict the routes of the transat­lantic slave ships, and glass cases hold price­less ar­ti­facts.

Among the ar­ti­facts are Har­ri­ett Tub­man’s shawl and hymn book; shack­les used on an en­slaved child; a “pocket copy” of the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion that sol­diers read from when de­liv­er­ing the news of free­dom to the U.S. Col­ored Troops; and the free­dom pa­pers that for­mer slave Joseph Tram­mell car­ried.

Af­ter walk­ing through the dark hall­ways, vis­i­tors en­ter an open room, greeted by the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and stat­ues of notable founders. One statue de­picts Ben­jamin Ban­neker, an African Amer­i­can born in Bal­ti­more County who was called on to help de­sign Washington, D.C.

Com­mu­nity Gal­leries

The third floor fea­tures the Com­mu­nity gal­leries, which high­light the suc­cesses of African Amer­i­cans de­spite lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties.

This area houses one of sev­eral in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ments, ti­tled the Home­town Hub. This mul­ti­me­dia ex­hibit al­lows view­ers to scroll through sto­ries about re­gional move­ment and set­tle­ment of African Amer­i­cans through the past few cen­turies. Around the hub are in­di­vid­ual projects fo­cus­ing on African Amer­i­can cul­ture and her­itage in 10 ma­jor U.S. cities. The dis­plays fo­cus on ma­jor events in those cities, in­clud­ing one on the Tulsa riots of 1921.

“This ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores the de­vel­op­ment of that com­mu­nity and it’s de­struc­tion,” said John Franklin, the se­nior man­ager in the Of­fice of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs. “We’ve had to ob­tain ar­ti­facts, doc­u­ments and oral his­to­ries from in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tu­tions in or­der to con­struct the story.”

Ath­let­ics make their most prom­i­nent ap­pear­ance on this floor, with an en­tire sec­tion de­voted to the tri­umphs of African Amer­i­can sports heroes.

This ex­hibit in­cludes equip­ment used by gym­nast Gabby Dou­glas in the 2012 Olympics and gold medals from Carl Lewis’ il­lus­tri­ous track and field ca­reer. The sports gallery stresses the im­por­tance of ath­let­ics in the pro­gres­sion of civil rights, as the sports realm was one of the first to ac­cept African Amer­i­cans as equals.

Cul­ture Gal­leries

Cur­rent cul­ture dom­i­nates the fi­nal floor, as pho­to­graphs of mod­ern celebrities, po­lit­i­cal fig­ures and fa­mous mu­si­cians cover the walls and dis­plays.

The mu­si­cal ar­ti­facts span gen­er­a­tions, from singer Mar­ian An­der­son’s out­fit from her his­toric 1939 con­cert at the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial to Chuck Berry’s red Cadil­lac. Ex­hibits de­pict the con­nec­tion be­tween music and cul­tural de­vel­op­ment, as well as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween mu­si­cal tra­di­tion and so­cial change.

Mov­ing to the big screen, the gallery tran­si­tions to pop­u­lar and ground­break­ing African Amer­i­cans in tele­vi­sion and movies.

Ac­tor Den­zel Washington is de­picted in the hos­pi­tal drama “St. Else­where,” next to a photo of the cast of the 1970s sit­com “Good Times.” Dis­plays ex­plain how African Amer­i­can per­form­ers broke down bar­ri­ers in pop cul­ture and opened doors for other mi­nori­ties.

The first fam­ily makes sev­eral ap­pear­ances in the po­lit­i­cal sec­tion of the gallery, with pho­to­graphs of Obama as a child and a dress worn by the first lady for the 50th an­niver­sary of the March on Washington.

Other notable African Amer­i­can politi­cians are men­tioned, in­clud­ing a large photo of Jesse Jack­son’s pres­i­den­tial run in 1988.

The open­ing cer­e­mony is slated to be­gin at 10 a.m. Satur­day, fol­low­ing a gath­er­ing and mu­si­cal pre­lude that be­gins at 8 a.m. The mu­seum will then be open to the pub­lic at 1 p.m. per timed passes, all of which have been dis­trib­uted. Timed passes are com­pletely booked un­til Novem­ber.

For more in­for­ma­tion on the mu­seum, the web­site is: https://nmaahc.


The Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, the new­est Smith­so­nian mu­seum, will open on the Na­tional Mall on Satur­day.

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