One Step Closer: Selection of Black History Museum Director and Museum Site Expected in 2005

Article excerpt

The appointment in December of the high-profile 19-member advisory council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture marked the newest chapter in the long effort to establish a national African American history museum in Washington. Named by the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, the council, which is comprised of luminaries such as media mogul Oprah Winffey, music and multimedia producer Quincy Jones and Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons has brought fresh attention to the museum effort, whose planning has been underway since President Bush signed legislation in 2003 authorizing the museum.

"I'm very pleased ... to finally see the appointment of such a distinguished group of professionals who will serve on the Advisory Council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Under the leadership of the Smithsonian Institution, I believe the hopes and dreams symbolized by this national museum are closer to being realized," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the museum's leading proponent in the U.S. Congress.

According to the Smithsonian, the "Council will advise the Regents on the planning and design of the museum; the acquisition and display of objects; and the adminismation, operation, maintenance and preservation of the museum. It's expected that the group, made up of some of the most influential and financially successful African Americans in the United States, will take a lead role in the fund raising required on private financing of the museum. The project will require an estimated $250 million in private funding, which is to be equally matched by public funding, according to officials.

"Our role, I think, is really as the advocates for the program. We're really going to be significantly responsible for both encouraging donations to the collections. We will be responsible for assisting the Smithsonian in raising half of the construction funds for this museum and that's clearly going to be an effort in the hundreds of millions of dollars," says council member Dr. Michael P. Lomax, the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund.

TAKING SHAPE

The effort to develop a national African American history museum goes back to early in the 20th century after an effort to honor Black Civil War veterans in 1915 inspired a movement dedicated to establishing such a museum. By the 1980s, the idea gained renewed support in Congress after Lewis, an icon of the American civil rights movement, became the museum's chief advocate on Capitol Hill.

"One of the things that is apparent is that in spite of the extraordinary contributions African Americans have made to the building of this nation (is that) we are really not included in the narrative of the Republic, particularly in institutional settings," Lomax says.

Despite gathering momentum in the early 1990s, the legislation authorizing the museum fell victim to the efforts of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, an archconservative Republican, who contended that the museum would motivate interest groups to demand a similar institution on or near the National Mall, which some believe is too crowded with museums and monuments.

By 2001, the museum idea found favor among a newer cohort of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. In November 2003, Congress approved the museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the museums on the Mall. The legislation, signed by President Bush in December 2003, authorized $17 million in federal funds for initial planning and another $15 million to begin educational programs. Officials would like to see the museum developed in five to seven years.

Duke University professor Dr. Richard Powell, an art historian who's been named to a scholar's advisory committee for the museum, says that among the challenges in developing the facility will be overcoming the lack of a core collection to anchor the facility, making effective use of multimedia technology in exhibits, and including all "the possible elements that go into telling a historical narrative and examining cultural contributions. …