Jefferson Davis, a U.S. senator from Mississippi and subsequent president of the Confederate States of America, was a founding member of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents in 1846. A self-proclaimed visionary who believed in the power of education to shape the fledgling American nation, Davis upheld the lofty aims of the Smithsonian, a network of museums and research centers that would form the federal core of the nation’s intellectual central nervous system.
He also upheld slavery while millions of Africans contributed physically and intellectually to build the nation. Between 1847 and 1855, the labor of enslaved Africans was used to quarry the red sandstone blocks that comprise the iconic Smithsonian castle.
Now, 170 years after the Smithsonian’s founding, the opening of the newest of its 19 museums, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by a U.S. president of African descent, would undoubtedly have stupefied the Confederacy. Like the Founding Fathers and countless others before and since, Davis and his comrades never resolved dissonances between enslavement and freedom. The new NMAAHC will trace the arc of that echoing discord and America’s ongoing struggle to resolve it.
Beyond its September 24 opening, the NMAAHC’s sprawling collections and educational programs are poised to cultivate new understandings of American identity and history. Using four conceptual pillars, including interactive exhibitions and collaborative educational programming, it will pose questions that are rhetorical, such as, “What is real freedom?”
Like the co-mingled cultures of the Africans whose memories the museum has been built to help gather and curate, the NMAAHC is sunk deeply and irrevocably in American soil. Remarkably, over half of the 400,000-square-foot museum and half of the 10 stories that house its treasures are below ground. The golden exterior features an improvisational riff on the West African-inspired blacksmiths of New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., crafted by the museum’s Pan-African architectural collaboration team, which is led by legendary architect J. Max Bond Jr. and includes Ghanaian-British David Adjaye (a 2015 EBONY Power 100 honoree) and Phil Freelon of Philadelphia, among others. To the immediate west, the museum is framed by the Egyptian obelisk-shaped-and-inspired Washington Monument. Taken as a set, the buildings evoke the arts and sciences of classical, medieval and contemporary Africa, providing a powerful testament to the influence of the culture on modern society.
Beginning its life with a growing collection of over 37,000 items, less than a quarter of the new museum’s space is dedicated to its 12 exhibitions spread across three thematic areas: History, Culture and Community. Among its diverse holdings are a Bible that belonged to Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman’s prayer shawl and the 1,200-pound Mothership that served as a Parliament Funkadelic stage prop. The rest of the building will house the country’s largest Africana collection, research and administrative offices, educational facilities and public space. The museum is, in the words of its website, both “a people’s journey” and “a nation’s story.”
When civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) introduced H.R. 2205 in May 2003, the bill noted, “there exists no national museum within the Smithsonian Institution located on the National Mall that (A) is devoted to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture; and that (B) encompasses, on a national level, the period of slavery, the era of reconstruction, the Harlem renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement; and other periods associated with African American life, art, history and culture.”
The bill was signed into law, becoming the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act, in December 2003 by then-President George W. Bush. Lonnie G. Bunch III was named NMAAHC’s founding director 16 months later, and since the selection of its five-acre site in January 2006, a barrage of public programming, planning, fundraising, construction and related work has ensued. Less than five years after ground was broken in February 2012, the museum will open in a moment of deep uncertainty and rising anxiety around issues of race, identity, citizenship, power and the American future.
After a century and a half of African-American collecting and curating traditions, the new museum has come to fruition as the crowning center. Historically Black Colleges and Universities have housed repositories of Africana artifacts, art and archives since their inceptions. In 1926, the Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile Arturo Schomburg’s collection of books, manuscripts, art and artifacts became the core of the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, now Harlem’s Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture. Twelve years later, Schomburg’s fellow member of the American Negro Academy, Howard University’s Kelly Miller, proposed the creation of a “National Negro Library and Museum.” Miller’s vision was partially realized in 1973 with the formal reorganization of Howard’s vast holdings into the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
The NMAAHC will now serve as a curatorial sibling to its older institution counterparts, distinct from the Smithsonian’s Washington core and national network. These museums include Chicago-based artist, organizer and educator Margaret Burroughs’s DuSable Museum of African American History (1961); Detroit physician Charles H. Wright’s Wright Museum of African American History (1965); the Washington, D.C.-based Frank Smith’s African American Civil War Memorial and Museum (1999); the African American Museum in Philadelphia (1976); and Wilberforce, Ohio’s, National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center (1987). In addition, NMAAHC joins two other Africana-themed Smithsonian museums: The Anacostia Community Museum (1967) and the National Museum of African Art (1979).
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, NMAAHC’s deputy director and a noted figure among African-American cultural institution builders, says people are hoping the museum deeply grounds younger generations. Like its sibling institutions, the museum’s concert of initiatives is anchored by a robust public education thrust. A Museum Council and a Scholarly Advisory Committee were established at the onset, with the highly esteemed John Hope Franklin named founding chairman of the Scholars panel. Franklin’s son, John Wittington Franklin, directs Partnerships and International Programs at the new museum.
Three publications are timed to debut with the museum’s September opening: Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture; Dream a World Anew: The African American Experience and the Shaping of America; and The National Museum of African American History and Culture: A Souvenir Book. These books will join a steady stream of NMAAHC publications that includes retrospectives on the Apollo Theater and American entertainment, women, photography and the relationships between African-Americans and Native Americans.
The museum’s 130-member staff is a tapestry of ethnic, cultural and racial backgrounds. Many among its senior leadership are women with deep ties to generations of African-American culture keepers. Several of them, including Deputy Director Conwill; Media Relations Coordinator Fleur Paysour; Chief Art Curator Jacqueline Days Serwer; and Art Curator Tuliza Fleming, guided this author through the NMAAHC’s journey and vision. Serwer served at the National Museum of American Art and as chief curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art before joining the new museum. Fleming, a protégée of legendary Black art figure David C. Driskell, is the daughter of John Fleming, the founding director of the aforementioned Wilberforce Museum as well as Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Projected to cost approximately $500 million to conceive, build, staff and provide funds for collecting materials, the museum relied on federal government support for less than half of that figure. The remaining amount—including an ongoing fundraising effort—has to be raised privately. A cascade of major figures from the worlds of philanthropy, entertainment and the arts have contributed, with Oprah Winfrey bestowing the single-largest individual gift, $13 million.
Perhaps it is not surprising that some of the biggest financial supporters are churchgoers. “Folks who are working-class, who tithe and give regularly, you add that up, and that’s real money. Our brilliant colleagues at the museum were able to tap into that. You tell people our story [about raising money for the museum], and they have a kind of call-and-response to that story because they’ve lived it. Because they’ve lived it, their parents and grandparents and ancestors have lived it. They’ve passed it down to their children, and that’s what it’s about,” says Conwill.
For further information on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, including how to become a member and/or make donations, visit its website, nmaahc.si.edu.
Greg Carr chairs Howard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies and is also an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law.