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A dream 100 years in the making

National Museum of African American History & Culture Opens September 24 in D.C.

Kelley Chunn
A dream 100 years in the making
(l-r) David J. Skorton, Smithsonian Secretary; Fleur Paysour, public affairs; Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the NMAAHC. (Photo: Don West)

When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture opens its doors to the public on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. this weekend, a dream that has been 100 years in the making will come to fruition. Beginning Friday night, “Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration,” a three-day music festival at the Washington Mall, marks the occasion. On Saturday morning, President Barack Obama will deliver remarks at the outdoor Dedication Ceremony, also featuring African American literature and musical performances.

The journey to NMAAHC’s opening began in 2003 when President George W. Bush signed federal legislation establishing the museum. Back then, there were no artifacts, no Washington D.C. site, no architect and a handful of staff. Now the museum owns almost 37,000 objects, with more than 3,000 on display, ranging from parts of a sunken slave ship to Carl Lewis’s Olympic medals. It employs a staff of 200 and boasts a fundraising program that has topped $315 million in private funds. NMAAHC also claims more than 100,000 members, a record for the Smithsonian.

At a recent press preview drawing hundreds of media from across the country, the museum displayed 12 inaugural exhibitions organized around three main themes: “History,” ”Community” and “Culture.” The collection includes an exhibit about the museum’s evolution, titled “A Century in the Making.” The 400,000-square-foot museum also houses an education and technology center, the Sweet Home Café, a museum store, the Oprah Winfrey Theater, a welcome center, an orientation theater and a Contemplative Court.

“If we have done our job right, I trust the museum will be a place for all Americans to ponder, reflect, learn, rejoice, collaborate and, ultimately, draw sustenance and inspiration from the lessons of history to make America better, “ said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director.

The LEED Gold-certified design of the building integrates form with function, taking visitors on a people’s journey beginning belowground in the “History Galleries,” where the complex story of slavery and freedom is told. Light-filled “Community Galleries” occupy higher floors, featuring the “Power of Place,” “Making a Way Out of No Way,” a “Sports Gallery” and a “Military History Gallery.” On the top floors visitors experience the “Culture Galleries,” where music, visual and performing arts take center stage.

“Wear comfortable shoes,” advises Beverly Morgan Welch, NMAAHC’s associate director of external affairs and former executive director of the Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill and Nantucket. “We want visitors to prepare themselves for a journey which will open their hearts and stir their intellects. It’s an experience they will process for the rest of their lives.”

Welch adds that NMAAHC has trained staff to help visitors reflect upon some of the emotions they may feel when they encounter some of the exhibits.

Multimedia coverage

For now, NMAAHC faces the challenge of managing a strong demand to experience the museum. Timed passes for opening weekend are no longer available. But many of opening weekend’s music festival events will be live-streamed. Music, performances, oral histories, storytelling and workshops are scheduled; C-SPAN3 TV will cover the dedication and some of the performances.