BY Steven Nelson in Features | 16 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

A New Day

A new Smithsonian Museum highlights African American history and culture

BY Steven Nelson in Features | 16 SEP 16

A slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina; a lace shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria; an aeroplane used to train the Tuskegee airmen for combat in World War II; a Pullman railcar from the Jim Crow 1920s; Emmett Till’s casket; and the six-metre-tall watch tower from the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, dubbed ‘Angola’ in reference to the Central African origins of the slaves held in bondage on the plantation that once stood there. These are just a few of the thousands of objects that will greet visitors when the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opens its doors to the public on 24 September. Taking its place proudly on the National Mall, little more than a stone’s throw from the Washington Monument, this US$500 million,  37,161 m² museum marks the triumphal crescendo of a century-long effort to highlight the role of African Americans in the formation of the US.

Endeavours to officially recognize black contributions to the nation began in 1915 when, on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, a group of black veterans, members of the Committee of Coloured Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic, formed the National Memorial Association, which lobbied for the creation of a Negro monument and museum. Nothing concrete happened.

Some 14 years later, on 4 March 1929, President Calvin Coolidge — during his last days in office — signed into law Public Resolution 107, which authorized the creation of the National Memorial Commission, a body charged with creating a memorial ‘as a tribute to the negro’s contributions to the achievements of America’ in Washington, D.C. While the commission was responsible for raising US$500,000, once this goal was achieved, to defray the costs incurred by the commission, the Federal Government would contribute US$50,000 to the efforts. This plan, unsurprisingly, was thwarted by the onslaught of the Great Depression.

The museum opens its doors to a public far more complex – and arguably far more polarized – than that of the early-to-mid 20th century.

Moves to create an African American memorial in Washington developed once again after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Like earlier efforts, despite a burgeoning black presence on television, the creation of Black Studies programmes in American universities, and the formation of museums of African American history around the country, these attempts once again stalled. By 1989, members of Congress had brought to the floor legislation to create some kind of institution for African American history, ideally to be housed within the Smithsonian. Although the Smithsonian initially resisted such plans, in 1990 it appointed Claudine Brown to direct the National African American Museum Project. It also began to amass a collection of artefacts. As had been the case for nearly 75 years, efforts were again stalled, this time over funding and squabbles regarding a suitable location.

By the early 2000s, the pieces for the new museum finally fell into place. On 28 December 2001, President George W. Bush signed legislation establishing a 23-member Presidential Commission to conduct another feasibility study for the creation of an African American museum. Alongside this development, fierce lobbying for the museum was undertaken by a union that defied party and ideological boundaries: US Representative and Civil Rights icon John Lewis, who had been engaged in efforts to create such a museum since the 1960s, US Senator Sam Brownback and attorney Robert Wilkins. This time, after nearly nine decades, efforts proved successful and, on 16 December 2003, President Bush signed law House Resolution 3491, the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act, which authorized the museum’s creation. 

In 2005, the Smithsonian appointed Lonnie G. Bunch III, president of the Chicago Historical Society, as the NMAAHC’s Founding Director. In 2006, the Smithsonian Board of Regents approved the museum’s five-acre site on the National Mall: a major victory for its supporters. Bunch has also spearheaded the museum’s aggressive — and successful — fundraising efforts and has given new energy to the building of the collection of art and artefacts begun decades earlier.

Edisto Island slave cabin, c.1800, photographed 2016. Courtesy: the Smithsonian

Some 101 years after the National Memorial Association lobbied for an African American memorial, 87 years after Congress and President Coolidge initially recognized the need to pay tribute to the Negro’s contributions to American achievement, and 48 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the museum finally opens its doors to a public far more complex — and arguably far more polarized — than that of the early-to-mid 20th century.

NMAAHC appears at a profoundly paradoxical moment for African Americans. While black people are more at the centre of life and cultural production in the US than ever before, at the same time, violence against African Americans continues unabated. Accordingly, while celebration and tribute remain key components of this museum, it will also exist as a place of discussion and debate. It will endeavour, as Bunch and others stress, to address the difficult, traumatic, contentious and messy topics that have been part and parcel of African American experience from the Middle Passage to #BlackLivesMatter. There will no doubt be controversies over what is and isn’t included in the NMAAHC’s exhibitions. However, what cannot be argued is the museum’s official marking of the critical importance of African Americans in American history and culture.

Designed by architecture firm Adjaye Associates, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens to the public on 24 September. David Adjaye will be speaking at Frieze’s inaugural Art and Architecture Conference on 4 October in London. For tickets and more information click here.

Steven Nelson is Director of the African Studies Center and Professor of African and African American Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA.