Black Culture & History Matter: It Took 150 Years after America Officially Abolished Slavery to Get a National Museum on the Black Experience

By Mullen, Kirsten | The American Prospect, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Black Culture & History Matter: It Took 150 Years after America Officially Abolished Slavery to Get a National Museum on the Black Experience


Mullen, Kirsten, The American Prospect


The new National Museum of African American History and Culture occupies a prominent space on the National Mall, between the National Museum of American History at 14th Street NW and the base of the Washington Monument. When the new museum opens in September 2016, it will be Americas first national museum dedicated to the full breadth of the black experience, and the largest in terms of size, scope, aspirations, capacity, and budget. Seen from the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, the 380,000-square-foot structure, a striking sculptural bronze-colored edifice in a sea of white Indiana limestone government buildings, blocks the view of the Washington Monument--as if to declare, Before you celebrate America's founding president, pause to reflect on the Republic's great omission.

The fact that it took more than 150 years after Emancipation for this museum to open reflects a complex story of America's tangled understanding of its racial history--compounded by the challenge of raising money for its support. America, uniquely among the world's wealthy nations, finances its great museums substantially with private donations. Though whites as well as blacks are free to contribute, the tacit assumption has been that black philanthropy would provide the bulk of the museum's support. And here, the gross disparity in black wealth and white wealth reverberates, both in the under-funding of black institutions and in the delicate narrative dance needed to attract complementary government and white philanthropic help.

After the Civil War, many black museums did manage to get established. The Hampton University Museum, the nation's first institutional repository of African American history, art, and science, was founded in 1868 and is still going strong. Hampton itself was established by the Freedmen's Bureau. According to Samuel W. Black, president of the Association of African American Museums, the first half of the 20th century was a golden age for black collectors: Carter G. Woodson, Arturo Alphonso Schomburg, and Jesse E. Moorland were scholar antiquarians who amassed large collections, which formed the nucleus of library holdings at Howard University (from Woodson and Moorland) and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which became part of the New York Public Library in 1972.

Given limited black wealth, it's hardly surprising that major black cultural institutions have been heavily reliant on periodic infusions of public funding. The new National Museum (NMAAHC) is no different. In 2003, after decades of extensive debate, Congress committed half of the $500 million needed to pay for the design and construction of the building and the installation of exhibitions, all under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution. The balance, $250 million, had to be raised from non-federal sources. Annual staff salaries and operations expenses, estimated at $44 million, are to be paid by the Smithsonian.

The NMAAHC is the first major museum to "open" on the web before its physical structure is even built. "We [combined] amazing artifacts" with "technology that will make history accessible," says the museum's founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III. He and his fledgling staff mined archival material and oral history interviews to co-produce interactive shows like "Marian Anderson: Artist and Symbol," a profile of the celebrated vocalist who gave a free concert in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000, having been barred from the DAR's Constitution Hall; "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty," presented at Monticello in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation; and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment."

Among the tens of thousands of objects already acquired by the new museum are the tin wallet a freedman fashioned to store his freedom papers for safekeeping, the hymnal that belonged to Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner's Bible (which underwent an extensive authentication process involving scientists and history scholars), a 77-ton, 80-foot-long restored Southern Railway Jim Crow car from about 1918, a prison guard tower from Louisiana's notorious Angola prison, and the silver dancing shoes and shimmering skin-tight dresses R&B group En Vogue wore in the video for "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It). …

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