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Architect sought for national black history museum

Brett Zongker

WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian Institution issued a call for architects last Thursday to submit their qualifications for a competition to build the newest museum on the National Mall, which will be dedicated to black history.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to open in 2015, and officials hope to name an architectural team by spring 2009 to build the Smithsonian’s first new museum to be certified as environmentally friendly.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch said he hopes the building will evoke values such as spirituality and optimism.

“It tells the quintessential American story,” he said. “After all, when one speaks of the core values like resiliency, hope and spirituality, where better to look than the African American experience?”

Curators are already preparing a master plan for exhibits, which will include the new acquisition of a slave cabin from a former Maryland tobacco plantation. The museum also is working to acquire a segregated train car from Tennessee.

Under government procedures, the museum issued a formal request for architects to show they’re qualified and interested for the project by Sept. 19. Submissions will be narrowed down to between three and seven firms for a design competition.

The Smithsonian already has heard from hundreds of architectural, engineering and consulting firms interested in the project, said Sheryl Kolasinski, director of Smithsonian planning and project management.

Congress has pledged to provide half of the museum’s $500 million cost, with private fundraising to cover the balance.

The Smithsonian is encouraging minority architects to participate but teams submitting proposals are not required to include minorities. Officials expect their selection of an architect to be widely scrutinized, after criticism of the selection of a Chinese sculptor to build a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall.

Part of the Smithsonian’s request, though, does require architects to demonstrate their appreciation of black history and culture. Similar language was used when the Smithsonian sought an architect for its last museum built on the National Mall. The team that designed the National Museum of the American Indian included an American Indian architect.

“Our goal at the end of this process is to have a signature building that people are going to say ‘I’m glad that’s on the Mall,’” Bunch said. “In a way, if we do that, we handle the criticism that will come.”

(Associated Press)