The National Museum of African American History and Culture (Curator: Lonnie Bunch)
What are the big take-aways?
One year ago, the newest Smithsonian museum opened on a corner of the Mall, close to the Washington Monument. I was able to visit it for a few hours when I was in Washington, D.C. for business last November, having reserved the required (free) timed ticket many weeks in advance.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a triumph of continuous leadership through many generations. After almost a hundred years of fits and starts – which are all fascinating in and of themselves as a timeline of African-American progress through the 20th century, but too many to recount here – in 2003 the museum was finally approved by an act of Congress signed into law by president George W. Bush. The slogan for the N.M.A.A.H.C. is “A People’s Journey – A Nation’s Story.” Consistent with the museum’s intent, my main take-away was that it offers a comprehensive history of the whole United States via the authentic African-American experience. It is painful, uplifting, poignant, beautiful, brutal and awesome.
Why do I like it?
I liked the museum’s refreshing and disorienting perspective on its own subject; the displays are emotional, artful and stimulating, but they don’t tell you exactly what to think or feel, or how to interpret what you’re seeing. You must make your own meaning from them, or not, as you choose. The museum’s curator, an extraordinary leader named Lonnie Bunch, was interviewed about this last year by Vinson Cunningham for The New Yorker. Cunningham writes:
Bunch’s framing of black experience, as a lens through which one may better see some static American text, sidesteps more than a century of scuffles over the nature, and the meaning, of that experience. Between the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington and the activism of W. E. B. Du Bois, the romance of Zora Neale Hurston and the social realism of Richard Wright, the defiance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the caution of “respectability politics,” there has always been something along these lines: go along or fight back, persuade or condemn, love or leave, use a common language or create one of your own…..Bunch may be a fighter, but he seems eager to avoid such a clash—the cost, perhaps, of doing business with Congress, on whom so much concerning the museum depends…Bunch told me about a meeting he had with Jim Moran, a former U.S. congressman from Virginia, who initially opposed the museum: “He says, ‘O.K., Lonnie, I don’t wanna be rude, but I don’t think there should be a black museum just for black people.’ And I said, ‘Neither do I.’ Blew him out of the water.”
Whatever the motivation behind Bunch’s inspired choice not to offer an over-arching interpretive stance, the museum he created from a black “Antiques Roadshow” of artifact donations is truly an American history museum for everyone. (Many of the most stunning artifacts and their contributors are beautifully photographed in this interactive New York Times article).
As an aside, I will also mention that I loved the museum’s excellent restaurant, Sweet Home Café, which features menus from four different traditional African-American cuisines.
In what situations would this be useful?
I will speak for myself, and say that the museum vastly expanded my perspectives on my whiteness, on the North American continent’s centuries-old discomfort with its torturously conflicted narratives, and on the continuing challenges the United States faces to define democracy, citizenship, equity and belonging.
Ultimately, my experience of the N.M.A.A.H.C. fortified feelings of hope for our culturally divided nation. As a visitor, you start in the cramped and dark underground-level exhibits of the “middle passage” era – echoing the belly of a slave ship – and then, slowly, you literally elevate level-by-level through the chronology of agonizingly incremental gains in civil rights, and wind up on top of the building surrounded by breath-taking art and objects from a dizzying array of contemporary cultural icons. In short, the museum helped me realize that the 400-plus-years-long struggle of African-Americans for human and civil rights serves as a powerful long-view map of not only where we’ve all come from, but also of possible pathways forward for our country.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
The museum building is an architectural wonder; for an enlightening interview with the lead architect, see this piece from the New York Times.
For some historical context on last month’s events in Charlottesville offered by N.M.A.A.H.C. curator Lonnie Bunch, click here. Another important but under-told story about leadership in the wake of Charlottesville is that of Christian Picciolini (and many others like him) who – as a former skinhead and violent white supremacist, himself – is dedicated to helping extremists who want to leave hate groups and make positive life changes. One such organization, co-founded by Picciolini, is Life After Hate.
P.S. July 2020 Update: In this New York Times interview, Lonnie Bunch is asked for his perspectives on the role of cultural institutions in social justice and recent controversies around where monuments and statues belong, as well as his take on the current anti-racism movement.