The Founding of the NMAAHC

This month’s Smithsonian Magazine has a fantastic article by Lonnie Bunch, the Executive Director of the Smithsonian’s 19th and newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The article narrates the story of the museum, from the moment Bunch was named as its Director to today, less than a month before it opens to the public. This is a museum that has been a long time coming, and I’m excited to see it whenever I finally get the chance to do so. The article should be read in its entirety – it’s funny, fascinating, and emotional – but here are a couple of my favorite highlights:

On my first day on the job, I was told we’d have temporary offices somewhere off the National Mall. And when I say “we,” I mean me and the only other person on the staff, Tasha Coleman. Tasha and I searched for our offices and found them locked, so we went down to the building’s front desk and asked for a key. They said, we don’t know who you are; we’re not just going to give you a key.

I then went to the building’s security office and informed them that I was the new museum director and I wanted access to my offices. The officer said no, because we have no record of you.

I called back to the Castle, the Smithsonian headquarters building, and confirmed that we were supposed to be allowed in. As I stood looking foolishly at a locked door, a maintenance man walked by pushing a cart holding some tools. One of those tools was a crow bar. So we borrowed it and broke into our offices.

At that moment, I realized that no one was really prepared for this endeavor, not the Smithsonian, not the American public and maybe not even me.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was wrestling with the widely differing assumptions of what the museum should be. There were those who felt that it was impossible, in a federally supported museum, to explore candidly some of the painful aspects of history, such as slavery and discrimination. Others felt strongly that the new museum had the responsibility to shape the mind-set of future generations, and should do so without discussing moments that might depict African-Americans simply as victims—in essence, create a museum that emphasized famous firsts and positive images. Conversely, some believed that this institution should be a holocaust museum that depicted “what they did to us.”

I think the museum needs to be a place that finds the right tension between moments of pain and stories of resiliency and uplift. There will be moments where visitors could cry as they ponder the pains of the past, but they will also find much of the joy and hope that have been a cornerstone of the African-American experience. Ultimately, I trust that our visitors will draw sustenance, inspiration and a commitment from the lessons of history to make America better. At this time in our country, there is a great need for contextualization and the clarity that comes from understanding one’s history. I hope that the museum can play a small part in helping our nation grapple with its tortured racial past. And maybe even help us find a bit of reconciliation.

As the staff grew, we organized 12 exhibitions, covering art (Hale Woodruff’s murals, the Scurlock Studio’s photographs), culture (Marian Anderson, the Apollo Theater) and history, which meant confronting difficult issues head-on. We intentionally did exhibitions that raised provocative questions, to test how to present controversy and to determine how the media or Congress might respond. “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” a collaboration with the Monticello historic site, was kind of a watershed. Of course, the subject of slavery went to the very core of the American dilemma, the contradiction of a nation built on freedom while denying that right to the enslaved. Slavery is one of the great unmentionables in contemporary American discourse, but we felt we had to confront the subject in a way that showed how much of America’s past was shaped by what was then called the “peculiar institution.” We featured one of those iconic statues of Jefferson, but we put it in front of a wall that had the 600 names of the enslaved residents of Monticello, both to humanize them and to show that one cannot understand Jefferson and the other founding fathers without grappling with slavery.

The end of the article discusses how Bunch and his staff came across some of the most notable and meaningful artifacts in their collection, and it’s all amazing, but the story at the end is beautiful:

It took us several years and a few false starts, but then scholars at George Washington University pointed us toward the São José, which sank off South Africa in 1794. About 200 of the enslaved people aboard died and maybe 300 were rescued, only to be sold in Cape Town the next week. To document that vessel, we started the Slave Wrecks Project with more than half a dozen partners, here and in South Africa. We trained divers, and we found documents that allowed us to track the ship from Lisbon to Mozambique to Cape Town. And we identified the region in Mozambique where the enslaved people it was carrying, the Makua, had come from.

It was inland, and it had something I’d never seen before—a ramp of no return, which enslaved people had to walk down to get to a boat that would take them away. It was nothing like the Doors of No Return that I had seen at Elmina in Ghana or on Gorée Island in Senegal; it was just this narrow, uneven ramp. I was struck by how hard it was for me to keep my balance walking down the ramp and how it must have been so difficult walking in shackles. I kept looking at the beauty of the water before me but realized that those enslaved people experienced not beauty but the horror of the unknown.

We wanted to take some dirt from this village and sprinkle it over the site of the wreck, to symbolically bring the enslaved back home. The local chiefs were only too happy to oblige, giving us this beautiful vessel encrusted with cowry shells to hold the dirt. They said, “You think it’s your idea that you want to sprinkle the soil, but this is the idea of your ancestors.”

The day of our ceremony was horrible: driving rain, waves pushing all kinds of things onto the rocks, probably like the day the São José sank. We were packed into this house overlooking the wreck site; speeches were made and poems read. And then we sent our divers out toward the site to cast the dirt on the water. As soon as they finished, the sun came out and the seas went calm.

Please check out the full article – it’s a wonderful tale with powerful ruminations on history, memory, and the meaning a museum can have. This has the potential to be one of the most powerful sites on the Mall or in the country, and I can’t wait to visit.

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