Nestled at the busy intersection of Constitution Ave and 14th Street in NW Washington, D.C., there’s a new neighbor to the variety of Smithsonian museums waiting to open its doors. The National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) will take guests on a journey throughout the nation’s history and how it shaped Black culture as we recognize it today. Congress passed legislation during the Bush administration to establish the museum in 2003. It was originally slated to open in 2015, but the dedication was delayed until this year.
The museum features an ‘Oprah Winfrey Theater’ that will host museum programs, a robust exhibition from Essence Magazine and contributions from well-known artists and celebrities including Michael Jackson, Prince, Nat King Cole, Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Paul Robeson and more. Visitors will also get to see the countless contributions members of the black community have made to Hollywood and American film. If it all becomes too overwhelming, guests can take a break and gaze out of the museum windows at the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Museum campus from the Concourse level.
The museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, was inspired to start the museum by his experiences as a young black boy in a predominately white neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, the state’s largest city. Bunch spent nearly 11 years traveling the country fundraising for the museum that will have the largest display of artifacts and contributions from America’s Black community. When the museum opens 33,000 items will be on display out of about 37,000 collected so far. As Bunch observed photographs, pictures and other types of memorabilia to assemble the museum’s collection, he says he often compared his own experiences with the racial anxieties he felt in his less than diverse neighborhood. In his reflective moods he would often wonder what it was like for African Americans to live in America at that time in history, if they were happy and if they were treated fairly.
Bunch is also hoping that the nascent museum will be received fairly by the public but knows that some of its exhibits will be controversial. Comedian and actor Bill Cosby will have an exhibit there without detailing his recent sexual abuse allegations scandal. The museum will show highlights of President Obama’s presidency and chronicle the Black Lives Matter movement into the country’s sociopolitical narrative. One of the touchier subjects that’s sure to cause some visitor reaction is how the museum treats slavery. Bunch says he documented the experience in a balanced way that honors those who’ve made sacrifices, yet does not exploit the often gruesome institution.
Yet, the museum is grounded by slavery, literally. Guests start their visit below ground in an exhibit called “Slavery and Freedom.” Artifacts include an auction block where for many, was the start of their journey during the transatlantic slave trade. The museum has also published a series of companion books with some of the exhibits called “Double Exposure” that’s being sold online. The visually captivating series highlights some of the challenges and dynamics of African-American life through photography while highlighting some of the most prominent activists, writers, historians and photographers in modern history. The photographs span from portraits taken from the pre-Civil War epoch to modern digital prints. The images capture scenes from the religious and oral traditions emanating from Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington to the Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The showcased photographers captured pieces of history that shaped so much of American culture. The NMAAHC is the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian family. It officially opens to the public on September 24th.