National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Backstory

Museum of African American History and Culture, (NMAAHC) construction site

There is a lot of buzz up here at Messiah College about the September 24 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.   Over the last week I have learned about at least one field trip and two more that are in the works.  (Washington D.C. is a two hour drive from Mechanicsburg, PA).

In the September 2016 issue of Smithsonian Magazine Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, tells how the museum “came to be.”

Here is a taste:

This moment was born out of a century of fitful and frustrated efforts to commemorate African-American history in the nation’s capital. It was in 1915 that a group of African-American veterans of the Civil War proposed a museum and memorial in Washington. In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge actually signed enabling legislation for a memorial celebrating “the Negro’s contributions to the achievements of America,” but the Great Depression put an end to that.

Ideas proposed during the 1960s and ’70s found little support among members of Congress. The desire to create a museum was resurrected in the 1980s thanks to Representative Mickey Leland of Texas, among others. A bill introduced by Representative John Lewis of Georgia in the late ’80s spurred the Smithsonian to launch a formal study of what an African-American “presence” on the National Mall might be. The study concluded that that presence should be a separate museum, but budget concerns curtailed the initiative.

In 2003, a commission appointed by President George W. Bush studied the question again and issued a report whose title reflected its verdict: “The Time Has Come.” Congress passed the law authorizing the museum that year.

All that was left for the museum’s director to do was to articulate a vision, hire a staff, find a site, amass a collection where there was none, get a building designed and constructed, ensure that more than $500 million could be raised from private and public sources, ease the apprehension among African-American museums nationwide by demonstrating how all museums would benefit by the creation of NMAAHC, learn to work with one of the most powerful and influential boards of any cultural institution and answer all the arguments—rational and otherwise—that this museum was unnecessary.

I knew that the new museum had to work as a complement to the National Museum of American History on the Mall. I’d worked there for 12½ years, first as a curator and then as the associate director of curatorial affairs. (A colleague and I collected the lunch counter from the Greensboro sit-ins, one of the museum’s signature artifacts.) But I’ve been a historian for my entire professional life. I knew that the story of America is too big for one building.

Read the entire piece here.

2 thoughts on “National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Backstory

  1. I posted about this same article yesterday – really poignant. The depth of meaning he brought to each encounter was beautiful, and you really get a sense of his vision for a museum space from it. Can’t recommend the article enough.

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