National Museum of African American History and Culture

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National Museum of African American History and Culture
Construction - National Museum of African American History and Culture - Washington DC.jpg
National Museum of African American History and Culture is located in Washington, D.C.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Magnify-clip.png
Location in Washington, D.C.
Established December 19, 2003
Location Washington D.C., United States
Coordinates 38°53′28″N 77°01′57″W / 38.891°N 77.0326°W / 38.891; -77.0326
Director Lonnie Bunch
Website nmaahc.si.edu

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a Smithsonian Institution museum established in 2003. The museum's building is currently under construction on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. The building is scheduled to open in 2016.

History[edit]

Early efforts[edit]

The concept of a national museum dedicated to African-American history and culture can be traced back to the second decade of the 20th century. In 1915, African-American veterans of the Union Army met in Washington, D.C., for a reunion and parade. Frustrated with the racial discrimination they still faced, the veterans formed a committee to build a memorial to various African-American achievements. Their efforts paid off in 1929, when President Herbert Hoover appointed Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, and 10 others to a commission charged with building a "National Memorial Building" showcasing African-American achievements in the arts and sciences. But Congress did not back the project, and private fundraising also failed. Although proposals for an African-American history and culture museum would be floated in Congress for the next 40 years, none gained more than minimal support.[1]

Proposals began circulating again in Congress in the early 1970s. In 1981, Congress approved the creation of a National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio. The museum, built and funded with private money, opened in 1987. In the early 1980s, Tom Mack (the African-American chairman of Tourmobile, a tourist bus company) founded the National Council of Education and Economic Development (NCEED). Mack's intention was to use the non-profit group to advance his ideas about economic development, education, and the arts in the black community. Emboldened by Congress' action in 1981, Mack began using the NCEED to press for a stand-alone African-American museum in D.C. in 1985.[2] Mack did not collaborate with other black-led cultural foundations that were working to improved the representation of African Americans by Smithsonian and other federal institutions.[3] Mack contacted Representative Mickey Leland about his idea for a national museum focusing on African Americans, and won his support for federal legislation in 1985. Leland sponsored a non-binding resolution (H.R. 666) advocating an African-American museum on the National Mall. This legislation passed the House of Representatives in 1986. The congressional attention motivated the Smithsonian to improve its presentation of African-American history as well. In 1987, the National Museum of American History sponsored a major exhibit, "Field to Factory," which focused on the black diaspora out of the Deep South in the 1950s.[4]

Rep. Mickey Leland, an early supporter of federal legislation for a black history museum.

"Field to Factory" encouraged Mack even further. In 1987 and 1988, NCEED began lining up support among black members of Congress for legislation that would establish an independent African-American national history museum in Washington, D.C. But NCEED ran into opposition from the African American Museum Association (AAMA), an umbrella group that represented small local African-American art, cultural, and history museums across the United States.[5] John Kinard, president of the AAMA and co-founder of the Anacostia Community Museum (which became part of the Smithsonian in 1967), opposed NCEED's effort. Kinard argued that a national museum would consume donor dollars and out-bid local museums for artifacts and trained staff. Kinard and the AAMA demanded that Congress establish a $50 million fund to create a national foundation to support local black history museums as a means of mitigating these problems.[6] Others, pointing to the Smithsonian's long history of discrimination against black employees (as late as 1989, the Smithsonian was still refusing to hire blacks for important jobs as curators, researchers, and restorers), questioned whether the white-dominated Smithsonian could properly administer an African-American history museum.[7][8][9] Lastly, many local African-American museums worried that they would be forced to become adjuncts of the proposed Smithsonian museum. These institutions had fought for decades for political, financial, and academic independence from white-dominated, sometimes racist local governments. Now they feared losing that hard-won independence.[6]

In 1988, Rep. John R. Lewis and Rep. Leland introduced legislation for a stand-alone African-American history museum within the Smithsonian Institution. But the bill faced significant opposition in Congress due to its cost. Supporters of the African-American museum tried to salvage the proposal by suggesting that the Native Indian museum (then moving through Congress) and African-American museum share the same space. But the compromise did not work and the bill died.[10]

Rep. John R. Lewis, who championed the legislation for the museum after Rep. Leland's untimely death in 1989.

Lewis and Leland introduced another bill in 1989.[11] But again cost considerations killed the bill. The Smithsonian Institution, however, was moving forward on the issue. In 1988, an ad hoc group of African-American scholars — most from within the Smithsonian, but some from other museums as well — began debating what an African-American history museum might look like.[12] While the group debated the issue informally, Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, Jr.[13] publicly suggested in October 1989 that "just a wing" of the National Museum of American History should be devoted to black culture — a pronouncement that generated extensive controversy.[14] The discussions by the ad hoc group prompted the Smithsonian to take a more formal approach to the idea of an African-American heritage museum. In December 1989 the Smithsonian hired nationally-respected museum administrator Claudine Brown[15] to conduct a formal study of the museum issue.[16]

Brown's staff group reported six months later that the Smithsonian should form a high-level advisory board to conduct a more thorough study of the issue. The Brown study was blunt in its discussion of the divisions within the African-American community about the advisability of a stand-alone national museum of African-American culture and history, but also forceful in its advocacy of a national museum, of national prominence and national visibility with a broad mandate to document the vast sweep of the African-American experience in the United States. The study was also highly critical of the Smithsonian's ability to adequately represent African-American culture and history within an existing institution, and its willingness to appoint African-American staff to high-ranking positions within the museum.[17]

A 22-member advisory board, chaired by Mary Schmidt Campbell,[18] was formed in May 1990.[19] The formation of the advisory board was an important one for the Smithsonian. Even at this point in its history, there were many on the Smithsonian's Board of Regents who believed that "African-American culture and history" was indefinable and that not enough artifacts and art of national significance could be found to build a museum.[17] On May 6, 1991, after a year of study, the advisory board made its report to the Smithsonian Board of Regents. The board voted to support a national museum of African-American history. But although the vote was unanimous, the regents had voted only to support a museum minimal in scope: The museum would not be a stand-alone institution, but rather would be housed in the East Hall of the existing Arts and Industries Building. The regents did agree, however, to keep the Anacostia Community Museum as a separate facility; that the new museum should have its own governing board and be independent of existing museums; and to support the proposal for a grant-making program to help local African-American museums build their collections and train their staff.[20] The regents also approved a "collections identification project" to identify donors who might be willing to donate, sell, or loan their items to the proposed museum.[21]

1990s efforts[edit]

The Smithonian board of regents agreed in September 1991 to draft legislation about a museum to send Congress,[21] and submitted that bill in February 1992.[22] But this bill was still controversial in the African-American community. It was criticized by Mack and others for putting the museum in a building that was too small and old to properly house the intended collection,[23] and despite winning approval in both House and Senate committees the bill died once more. In 1994, Senator Jesse Helms refused to allow the legislation to come to the Senate floor (voicing both fiscal and philosophical concerns) despite wide support in both political parties.[24]

In 1995, citing budget cuts, the Smithsonian abandoned its support for a new museum and instead shifted its support to a proposed Center for African American History and Culture. Many, including Mary Campbell Schmidt, saw the change in support as a step backward. Smithsonian officials strongly disputed the charges.[25] Additionally, the Smithsonian's new Secretary, Ira Michael Heyman, questioned the need for "ethnic" museums of every stripe on the National Mall.[26] To demonstrate its support for African-American history preservation, the Smithsonian held a $100,000 fundraiser in 1998 for the Center for African American History and Culture (which was now housed at the Anacostia Community Museum).[27]

Heymann departed the Smithsonian in 1999.[28] In the meantime, other cities moved forward with major new African-American museums. The city of Detroit opened a $38.4 million, 120,000-square-foot (11,000 m2) Museum of African-American History in 1997,[8] and the city of Cincinnati broke ground on a $90 million, 157,000-square-foot (14,600 m2) National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. In 2000, a private group — upset with Congress' delays — proposed constructing a $40 million, 400,000-square-foot (37,000 m2) museum across the Anacostia River from the Washington Navy Yard.[29]

Passage of federal legislation[edit]

In 2001, Representatives J. C. Watts and Lewis re-introduced legislation for a museum.[30] Under its new Secretary, Lawrence M. Small, the Smithsonian Board of Regents reaffirmed its support for a National Museum of African American History and Culture in June 2001. But the regents also demanded that Congress give the Smithsonian control over the museum and fully fund it.[31] On December 29, President George W. Bush signed legislation establishing a 23-member commission to study the need for a museum, how to raise the funds to build and support it, and where it should be located. The president also expressed his opinion that the museum should be located on the National Mall.[32]

The presidential commission's work took nearly two years, not the anticipated nine months. In November 2002, AFLAC gave $1 million to help build the museum.[33] Finally, on April 3, 2003, the presidential commission released its final report. As expected, the commission said a museum was needed. More importantly, however, was the site it chose for the museum: A plot of land adjacent to the Capitol Reflecting Pool, bounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues NW and 1st and 3rd Streets NW. The commission ruled out the Smithsonian's Arts & Industries Building as too costly to renovate. It considered two other sites—just west of the National Museum of American History, and a site on the southwest Washington waterfront—but rejected both. The commission also rejected an independent board of trustees for the proposed museum, an independent board with a large minority appointed by the Smithsonian, or an independent board with a majority appointed by the Smithsonian. The commission proposed a 350,000 square-foot museum that would cost $360 million to build. Half the construction funds would come from private money, half from the federal government. Legislation to implement the presidential commission's report was sponsored in the Senate by Sam Brownback and in the house by John R. Lewis.[34]

As Congress considered the legislation, the museum's location became the major sticking point. Among other sites now proposed were the "Liberty Loan" site, at the northern foot of the 14th Street Bridge, and Benjamin Banneker Park at the end of L'Enfant Promenade. But with the bill in danger of dying, backers of the museum said in mid-November 2003 that they had agreed to abandon their push for a site near the Capitol in favor of other locations.[35] The compromise saved the legislation: The House passed the "National Museum of African American History and Culture Act" (Public Law 108-184) on November 19, and the Senate followed suit two days later.[36][37] The legislation appropriated $17 million to plan the museum (which included finding a location for it), and $15 million for "educational programs."[38] These programs included grants to African-American museums to help them improve their operations and collections; grants to African-American museums for internships and fellowships; scholarships for individuals pursuing careers African-American studies; grants to promote the study of modern-day slavery throughout the world; and grants to help African-American museums build their endowments. The legislation set up a committee to select a site within 12 months. The legislation required the committee to pick from four sites: a site just west of the National Museum of American History, the "Liberty Loan" site, Banneker Park, and the Arts and Industries Building.[36]

Siting and design competition[edit]

Construction signs at the future site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Construction site - January 20, 2013

On February 9, 2005, with the site committee still deliberating, President Bush again endorsed placing the museum on the National Mall.[39]

The committee did not select a site until January 31, 2006 — a full 13 months late. The site chosen was just west of the National Museum of American History. The site was part of the Washington Monument grounds, but had been listed as the site of a major building in the L'Enfant Plan of 1791 and the McMillan Plan of 1902. The United States Department of State originally planned to build its headquarters there in the early 20th century, and the National World War II Memorial was considered for the parcel in 1995.[40]

On March 15, 2005, the Smithsonian named Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III to be the Director of the National African American Museum of History and Culture.[41]

The National Museum of African American History and Culture Council (as the museum's board of directors is known) sponsored a design competition in 2008. The winning architect or firm would build the museum. The competition required a 350,000 square-foot building, with three stories below ground and five stories above ground. The building was limited to the five-acre site west chosen by the presidential site selection committee, must be LEED Gold certified, and meet stringent security standards. The cost was limited to $500 million.[42] The winning design had to respect the history and visage of the Washington Monument as well as demonstrate an understanding of the African American experience. It should reflect optimism, spirituality, and joy, but also acknowledge and incorporate "the dark corners" of that experience. It must, most of all, function as a museum, but it must also be able to host cultural events of various kinds.[43] Hundreds of architects and firms were invited to participate in the design competition. Six firms were chosen as finalists:[44]

The design submitted by the Freelon Group/Adjaye Associates/Davis Brody Bond/(SmithGroup) won the design competition.[45] The upper floors feature a crown motif from Yoruban sculpture.[46]

Under federal law, the National Capital Planning Commission, the United States Commission of Fine Arts, and the D.C. Historic Preservation Commission all have review and approval rights over any construction in the metropolitan D.C. area. As the design went through these agencies for approval, it was slightly revised. The building was moved toward the southern boundary of its plot of land, to give a better view of the Washington Monument from Constitution Avenue. The size of the upper floors were shrunk by 17 percent. Although three upper floors were permitted (instead of just two), the ceiling height of each floor was lowered so that the overall height of the building was lessened. The large, box-like first floor was largely eliminated. Added to the entrance on Constitution Avenue is a pond, garden, and bridge. Visitors will have to "cross over the water" — just like slaves did when they came to America.[47]

The museum is scheduled to open in 2015.[48] Until then, the museum will occupy a gallery located on the second floor of the National Museum of American History.[49]

On June 10, 2013, media magnate Oprah Winfrey donated $12 million to the NMAAHC. Winfrey previously donated $1 million to the museum in 2007. The Smithsonian said it would name the NMAAHC's 350-seat theater after her.[50] The GM Foundation announced a $1 million to the museum on January 22, 2014, to fund construction of the building and design and install permanent exhibits.[51]

Building design changes[edit]

The design of the architectural scrim which surrounds the building was changed in September 2012. The building itself is a box-like structure. The three-part corona of the building's design is created by a structure only minimally attached to the building. The exterior of this structure, whose frames lean outward to create the coronas, consisted of a thin screen or "scrim" perforated by geometrical patterns based on historic iron grilles found in African American communities in Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana.[52] The scrim was originally made of bronze, which would have made the museum the only one on the National Mall whose exterior was not made of limestone or marble. But the architects changed this to bronze-painted aluminum in September 2012. The change was approved, but strongly critiqued by the Commission of Fine Arts for lacking the warm, reflective qualities of bronze.[53] Noted architect Witold Rybczynski also criticized the change. "The appeal of bronze is its warm golden sheen and the rich patina that it acquires over time, but uniformly painted surfaces lack these attributes, and over time they don't age, they merely flake. ... At the time of this writing, the African American museum risks compromising its original intention. In architecture, beauty sometimes really is only skin-deep."[53]

The Smithsonian radically changed the landscaping of the under-construction museum in summer 2013. The original design for the museum planned a wetland with flowing creek, bridges, and native plants in this area. But cost considerations led the agency to completely eliminate it. At first, the Smithsonian proposed a low hedge. It brought this design to the Commission of Fine Arts in April 2013, which rejected it. The Commission expressed "great concern about the possible loss of the symbolic meaning that had been skillfully woven into the design of both the landscape and the building". In July, the Smithsonian replaced the hedge with a low dull black granite wall. The Commission of Fine Arts approved that redesign, and the Smithsonian brought it to the National Capital Planning Commission. As of August 2013, the NCPC was anticipated to approve it.[54]

Debate over the corona's finish continued into 2014 before being resolved. The Commission of Fine Arts repeatedly urged the architects to use bronze for the scrim, as it created a "shimmering, lustrous effect under many lighting conditions" and "conveyed dignity, permanence and beauty".[55] Duranar paint was the first substitute proposed by the architects, but the commission members rejected it, noting that it had a "putty-like appearance under overcast conditions" and visually fell "far short of the beautiful poetic intention promised by the concept design".[55] A second finish, the sprayable metal LuminOre, was rejected by the commission because it was difficult to produce in the high quality needed, and had a high likelihood of flaking and discoloration.[55] Electroless plating and anodized aluminum were rejected because they lacked durability. A physical vapor deposition process was involving a nickel-chrome plating was dismissed for not achieving the right color, luster, or warmth. In early 2014, tests were made with polyvinyl difluoride (PVDF). This coating was approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on February 20, 2014. (The National Capital Planning Commission must also approve the coating.)[55]

Construction of the museum building[edit]

The museum's groundbreaking ceremony took place on February 22, 2012.[56][57] United States President Barack Obama and museum director Bunch were among the speakers at the ceremony.[56] Actress Phylicia Rashād was the Master of Ceremonies for the event, which also featured poetry and music by Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson and the Heritage Signature Chorale.[56]

Construction of the museum is being done by Clark Construction Group, Smoot Construction, and H.J. Russell & Company. The architectural firm of McKissack & McKissack (which was the first African American-owned architectural firm in the United States) provides project management services on behalf of the Smithsonian, and acts as a liaison between the Smithsonian and public utilities and D.C. government agencies.[58]

The NAAMHC will be the deepest museum on the National Mall. Excavators dug 80 feet (24 m) below grade to lay the foundations, although the building itself will be only 70 feet (21 m) deep. The museum is located at a low point on the Mall, and groundwater puts 27.78 pounds per square inch (191.5 kPa) on the walls. To compensate, 85 US gallons (320 L) per minute of water were pumped out every day during construction of the foundation and below-grade walls, and a slurry of cement and sand injected into forms to stabilize the site. Lasers continue to monitor the walls for signs of any bulging or movement.[58]

By late December 2013, construction was just weeks from finishing the five basement levels. Above-ground work was scheduled to begin in late January 2014.[58]

When complete, the 350,000 square feet (33,000 m2) building will have 10 stories (five above and five below ground). It is currently on track to be completed in November 2015.[58]

Notable exhibits[edit]

In January 2012, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (which owns Jefferson's home, Monticello) to create a major new exhibit, "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty." The exhibition opened on January 12, 2012, at the National Museum of American History, scheduled to close on October 14, 2012.[59] The exhibit received nationwide attention, garnering articles from sources such as the Associated Press, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, the New York Times, United Press International, USA Today, and the Washington Post.[59][60][61][62] The 3,000-square-foot (280 m2) exhibit was created by Rex Ellis (an associate director of the NMAAHC) and Elizabeth Chew (a curator at Monticello). It was accompanied by a companion book, 'Those Who Labor for My Happiness': Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, by Lucia Stanton.[61] NMAAHC director Lonnie Bunch III said that the exhibit explores one way in which slavery might be presented at the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015.[61]

"Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello" also received attention for the striking statue of Jefferson that graced the exhibit entrance. The Smithsonian used a Minolta 3D scanner to create a digital image of a life-size bronze statue of Jefferson, which is located at Monticello. RedEye on Demand (a subsidiary of Stratasys), fused deposition modeling "printer," which laid down tiny layers of molten plastic to slowly build the statue. The statue was "printed" in four sections, which were then put together, detailed, and painted.[63] Smithsonian officials were so pleased with the process that they began laying plans use it to laser image and "print" a vast number of items in their collection, which they could then share inexpensively with the rest of the world.[62]

Museum collection[edit]

The Smithsonian Institution listed the number of items in the museum collection in 2012 as either more than 18,000 pieces[64] or more than 25,000 pieces.[65] As of January 2012, the more notable items in the collection included:

Web presence[edit]

In 2007, the National Museum of African American History and Culture became the first major museum to open on the Web before completing a physical structure. The Web site includes the museum's first exhibit, mounted in New York City.[77] It is also designed to encourage collaboration between scholars and the public. The main feature of the Web-based initiative is the Memory Book application, which allows individuals to contribute to the Web site via pictures, a story, or audio application, to spotlight unique experiences in African-American culture.[78]

References[edit]

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Bibliography[edit]

  • Gathercole, Peter and Lowenthal, David. The Politics of the Past. New York: Psychology Press, 1994.
  • Robinson, Randall. The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. New York: Plume, 2001.
  • Ruffings, Fath Davis. "Culture Wars Won and Lost, Part II: Ethnic Museums on the Mall." Radical History Review. June 1998.
  • Rybczynski, Witold. How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

External links[edit]