Tess Eyrich 2017-03-06 13:33:46
More than a century in the making, the Smithsonian Institution’s newest museum uses African-American culture as a lens to understand what it means to be an American. When the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened its doors in September, the latest edition to the Smithsonian Institution’s vaunted National Mall complex became the first museum dedicated exclusively to chronicling all six-plus centuries of the African-American experience. It also signaled the climax of roughly 90 years of complicated legislative back-and-forth, 13 years of stalled development and widespread condemnation from critics who doggedly questioned the concept’s inclusivity—a true testament to the indestructible spirit of a culture that continues to redefine what it means to be an American. THE ROAD TO WASHINGTON Nowadays, it might seem all too easy to overlook the fact that the museum’s opening was preceded by nearly a century’s worth of stymied efforts to have it approved in the first place.Beginning in 1915, black veterans of the Civil War put into motion some of the earliest efforts to have a monument or memorial established as a tribute to African-American soldiers; over the years, their initial plan evolved into a request for a federally recognized monument in Washington,D. C. The proposal languished throughout the civil rights movement, only to be resurrected in the late 1980s and reintroduced to Congress as legislation for 15 consecutive years by Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia. The bill officially passed and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, kicking off the museum’s eventual development under Founding Director Lonnie G. Bunch III. There was just one glaring problem: Technically, the museum didn’t have any pieces in its collection. To remedy the situation, Bunch set about launching a 15-city, preservationthemed tour called “Save Our African American Treasures.” The series was patterned after the popular PBS show “Antiques Roadshow,” and audiences responded enthusiastically, oftentimes going as far as donating their heirlooms to the museum’s budding collection after the series’ conclusion. “There are more than 3,000 items on display in the museum, but the total number of pieces in its overall collection is about 36,000—that includes photos and historic documents, too, not just objects,” says Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution (in comparison, the National Museum of American History purports to contain more than 3 million artifacts). “Most of them were privately donated over a period of about seven years,” St. Thomas adds of the new collection’s important pieces. “And some were purchased at auction.” The building’s architecture is almost as impressive as the collection itself. Ensconced in a massive, 400,000-square-foot inverted pyramid covered in panels of bronze filigree, the space’s design was inspired by a traditional Yoruban Caryatid (a carved wooden figure from Nigeria that features a three-tiered crown). The concept, conceived of by the British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, is an intentional departure from the white marble and limestone structures that populate the National Mall, including its towering neighbor the Washington Monument—dark, daring and wholly unapologetic about its differences. BEYOND THE BRONZE So far, both the museum’s bold footprint and intensely stirring collection have elicited emotional responses from guests. “It’s not just about the individual pieces; a lot of the impact comes from the way the museum is organized,” St. Thomas says. “What has affected people the most is the History Gallery—it’s the threestory foundation of the museum, and certainly its biggest part. When guests arrive, they go down 70 feet [in] an elevator and, when the elevator opens, they’re in a ver y dark, somber area with objects related to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” The underground exhibitions recount the history of the Middle Passage by exposing guests to a replica of the interior of a slave ship, several pieces of wreckage from an authentic slave ship that broke down off the coast of South Africa in 1794 and hard-hitting artifacts like shackles, an auction block and a Ku Klux Klan hood. “Essentially, guests are moving through time as they travel up the gallery’s ramps,” St. Thomas adds. The goal is to reintroduce visitors to a history that all Americans share, regardless of how uncomfortable or deeply painful it may be for some to confront. The message is keenly felt in a sectioned-off area that’s part of the museum’s exhibition of materials related to the civil rights movement.Guests who enter the private anteroom encounter the glass-topped casket of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman.Other items, such as the dress Rosa Parks was sewing shortly before she was arrested for refusing to move to the back of an Alabama bus, and lunch stools from the famous sit-ins staged at a Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, pay tribute to resistance efforts during the era of segregation. Upstairs, meanwhile, the Community and Culture galleries comprise two floors of exhibition spaces dedicated to African-Americans’ contributions to sports (boxer Muhammad Ali’s robe), music and the arts (singer Michael Jackson’s sequined jacket) and the military (the 1952 Medal of Honor given to Cornelius Charlton), among other areas. With so much to see, it’s hardly a wonder that the space’s dwell time—the length of time visitors tend to spend inside a particular museum— far exceeds the standard set by most museums.Moved to quiet contemplation, instead of staying the usual two hours, guests typically spend up to five or six inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture. MUST-SEE SECTIONS When visiting NMAAHC, Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution, recommends paying extra attention to these two pivotal sections of the museum’s third-floor Community Gallery: “MAKING A WAY OUT OF NO WAY” Designed to highlight the resiliency of African-American community organizations, this exhibition focuses on black-owned businesses, clubs, fraternities and sororities that took root during the Jim Crow era. “Back then, being legally ‘free’ didn’t necessarily mean that black people could do whatever they wanted, especially in the South,” St. Thomas says, explaining that this led to the founding of a wave of institutions and support systems by African-American leadership groups. “POWER OF PLACE” This highly interactive exhibition zones in on 10 places around the country with historical—yet often unfamiliar—ties to African-American communities. “The exhibition’s curator picked out 10 cities to treat as ‘place studies,’ ” St. Thomas says. “He included both places like Chicago, a major center of black urban life, and Martha’s Vineyard, which used to have a town, Oak Bluffs, that was known as an area for middle- and upper-income African- Americans to vacation.”
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