National Museum of African American History and Culture breaks ground today

This morning ground broke on the 19th Smithsonian museum.

Photo credit: Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will join the other Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the National Museum of American History.

Between 15,000 and 20,00 artifacts have already been collected and Museum Director Lonnie Bunch hopes to double that number for the museum’s permanent exhibit. A gallery for the future museum has been added to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and will rotate exhibits until the NMAAHC opens in 2015.

The building design was inspired by African-American metal work. Phil Freelon, the architect of record, and two others, David Adjaye and the late Max Bond, came together to create the winning design in 2008. The seven-level structure will also have a considerable amount of exhibit space below ground, and it will be the first from-the-start green sensitive project on the Mall.

View renderings of the museum and artifacts already part of the collection in this slideshow from the Washington Post.

Groundbreaking ceremony

Watch a video of the ceremony.

Today’s groundbreaking ceremony was hosted by actress Phylicia Rashad. She said that the interconnectedness of African-American history is “what makes America really great … there are different peoples living here who come together as one people.” In speaking about the museum, she said, “I would like to see some stories I’ve never imagined. I’d like to see some stories that aren’t so well talked about but that have documentation to back them up.”

Former First Lady Laura Bush, center, alongside other dignitaries shovel dirt during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. SAUL LOEB / AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The museum will not be just a place for African Americans to explore African American history, but for all Americans and people from all over to learn about the history and culture of African Americans. “What this museum can do is if we tell the unvarnished truth in a way that’s engaging and not preachy, what I think will happen is that by illuminating all the dark corners of the American experience, we will help people find reconciliation and healing,” said Director Bunch.

President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush were also on hand for today’s ceremony. The President pointed out the National Mall’s significance in this history of the African American experience. “It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom. It was here that the pillars of democracy were built often by black hands,” President Obama remarked.

The new Smithsonian is one among several that mark a rise in museums focused on African American history. In addition to the new Smithsonian museum, Macon, GA; Atlanta, GA; Jackson, MS; and Charleston, SC, each have museum projects on African American history, several  focusing on the Civil Rights era.

Collection highlights

USToday reported that “[t]he museum has bought items from collectors, received donations from families and found objects through its version of Antiques Road Show. Curators travel the country, putting out the word before they arrive that they’re looking for artifacts. Instead of putting a price tag on antiques as the popular TV show does, the curators examine heirlooms for their historical value.”  A few items of note in the collection include:

  • Several pieces from the Tubman Collection, donated by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, which include a hymn book and shawl given to Tubman by Queen Victoria
  • An airplane used to train the Tuskegee Airmen, the WWII black fighter pilots
  • A dress that curators believe belonged to a 19th century slave (Slave garments are difficult artifacts to come by.)
  • An early version of dog tags for a black Civil War soldier
  • Shards of glass from the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls
  • A recreation of Mae’s Millinery Shop, which was one of Philadelphia’s first black-owned businesses and opened in 1940
  • Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car
  • Louis Armstrong’s trumpet

 More than 100 years in the making

The following is an excerpt from the US Today article by Marisol Bello on the history of a national museum for African American history.

The call for a national museum for blacks in the nation’s capital came in 1915 from a group of black Civil War veterans and prominent business and religious leaders.

From 1916 to 1929, black leaders, including pioneering educator Mary McLeod Bethune, worked to get bills introduced in Congress to authorize the construction of a memorial building, says federal district Judge Robert Wilkins, 48, an advocate for the museum.

They faced white Southern legislators who argued that blacks had contributed nothing to the USA to deserve a memorial, says Wilkins, who has written a study of the museum’s history.

Despite the objections, legislation passed the House and Senate in 1929 authorizing a memorial building that would serve as a tribute to black achievement in the USA. However, the government did not fund it, and by the time the country was fighting in World War II, the authorization was forgotten.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought more federal efforts to establish a national museum, including a commission and more legislation. At the time, leaders of the Smithsonian Institution did not want to oversee a separate museum for African-American history, preferring instead to incorporate it into their existing museums.

Read more about the museum and its history.

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