National Museum of African American History and Culture
Director: Lonnie G. Bunch III
Total Full-Time Employees: 120
Annual Budget (federal and trust) FY 2015: $44 million; $24 million for construction)
Approximate Number of Artifacts: 33,000
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was created in 2003 by an Act of Congress, establishing it as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Board of Regents, the governing body of the Institution, voted in January 2006 to build the museum on a five-acre site on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets N.W. This site is between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The new museum will be the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture. It is expected to open in fall 2016.
The enabling legislation also established a Council for the National Museum of African American History and Culture to advise the Smithsonian Regents on a range of issues, including the planning, design and construction of the museum; administration; and acquisition of objects for the museum’s collections.
The museum is building a collection designed to illustrate the major periods of African American history, beginning with the origins in Africa and continuing through slavery, reconstruction, the civil rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and into the 21st century.
Highlights include the following:
- Harriet Tubman collection, including her hymnal (c. 1876); lace shawl (c. 1897), given to her by Queen Victoria; and family photographs from her funeral
- Jim Crow Railroad car (c. 1920)
- Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible (c. 1973)
- Black Fashion Museum Collection (approximately 1,000 items)
- Tuskegee Airmen Trainer Plane, an open-cockpit PT-13 Stearman (c. 1942), used to prepare Tuskegee Airmen for World War II combat duty
- Works of art by Charles Alston, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Lorna Simpson, Romare Bearden, Archibald John Motley Jr., Henry O. Tanner and Frederick C. Flemister
- Emmett Till’s casket (c. 1955)—the glass-topped coffin that held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till whose murder in Mississippi helped galvanize the civil rights movement
- Slave cabin from Edisto Island, S.C. (c. 1800–1850)
The museum’s 11 inaugural exhibitions in the National Museum of African American History and Culture will focus on broad themes of history (slavery and freedom, segregation and 1968 and beyond), culture and community (power of place, sports, military history and an exhibit titled “Making a Way Out of No Way”), music, cultural expressions and visual arts.
NMAAHC Gallery and Traveling Exhibitions
The museum has its own gallery in the National Museum of American History. Its first exhibition, “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise,” opened in January 2009 with more than 100 portraits and other photographs of African Americans taken by the Scurlocks from 1911 to 1994. Among the portraits are photos of Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, Ralph Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune and Muhammad Ali.
Presented in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, the museum’s exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” opened Jan. 27, 2012. This groundbreaking exhibition features artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collections and from excavations at Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. It provided a rare and detailed look at the lives of six slave families living at Monticello. It closed Oct. 14, 2012, and is currently traveling to sites across the country.
From Dec. 14, 2012, to Sept. 7, 2014, the museum presented “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and The March on Washington, 1963,” in partnership with the National Museum of American History. The exhibition commemorated the 2013 anniversaries of two events that changed the course of the nation—the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1963 March on Washington. Standing as milestone moments in American history, these achievements were the culmination of decades of struggles by individuals—both famous and unknown—who believed in the American promise that this nation was dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” A traveling version of the exhibition is currently visiting sites throughout the country.
From Nov. 7, 2014, to March 1, 2015, the museum displayed “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” at its gallery in the National Museum of American History. It was an exhibition of murals portraying significant events in the journey of African Americans from slavery to freedom. The murals, commissioned by Talladega College in 1938, were removed for a collaborative restoration project organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which also organized a multicity tour of the works.
On May 8, 2015, the museum opened its eighth exhibition, “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection.” Featuring 140 collection items, the exhibition offers a preview of the museum’s permanent collection. It highlights trailblazers, innovators, visionaries and history makers who help tell the American story through an African American lens.
Other exhibitions previously on view in the NMAAHC Gallery include: “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment” and “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights.”
The museum opened its first traveling exhibition in May 2007 at the International Center of Photography in New York. The exhibit was a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, from whose collection the exhibition images were drawn. The exhibition, “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Photographs,” toured 15 cities.
Education and Research
“Save Our African American Treasures” is one of the museum’s signature programs. In this series of daylong workshops, participants work with conservation specialists and historians to learn to identify and preserve items of historical value, including photographs, jewelry, military uniforms and textiles. Instruction is offered through hands-on activities, audiovisual presentations and a 30-page guide book developed by the museum. Launched in Chicago in January 2008, “Treasures” events have been held in cities around the country, including Atlanta, Charleston, S.C., Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
The museum also offers a local education program called “Mission Preservation: Classroom Treasures” to schools in the Washington metro area. A version of the “Save Our African American Treasures” program, this initiative helps students understand the historic importance of material culture and preserving family oral histories and objects.
About the Museum Design and Construction
In April 2009, a design competition jury selected Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup as the museum’s architectural and engineering team. The team consists of four firms brought together for this unique project: The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroup. The Freelon Group is the architect of record, and Philip G. Freelon, FAIA, will serve as the design guarantor, making sure the design reflects the values and priorities of the museum and the Smithsonian. The Ghanaian-born architect David Adjaye, with offices in Berlin, London and New York, is the lead designer.
Construction by Clark/Smoot/Russell construction team began in February 2012 with a ceremonial groundbreaking, featuring remarks by President Barack Obama; Former First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Laura W. Bush; and the cosponsors of the museum’s enabling legislation, former U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). The museum is scheduled to open in fall 2016.
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