Traveling Exhibit

Making the Case for a National Black Museum

Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has endeavored to be a portrait of mankind, and particularly a portrait of America. Its Web site calls the complex of museums "the mosaic that is our national identity." In the late 1970s and '80s, it became clear to many scholars that the mosaic was mostly white.

While the Smithsonian has since made efforts to diversify, critics say there is still a glaring omission—a museum dedicated exclusively to African Americans. Advocates of a museum note that jazz, segregation, and the civil rights movement are all seminal threads in the American tapestry and thus deserve a separate viewing. "It really is impossible to understand American history if you don't understand the role of African Americans," says Claudine Brown, director of arts and culture programs for the Nathan Cummings Foundation. "There is just no reason why this museum should not exist. . . . If people are not learning about the history of African Americans, they really aren't learning American history."

Should a handful of lawmakers have their way, the National Mall will one day be the home of that story. Last year, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a Democrat who has championed a national African American museum for years, reached across the aisle for support. He shrewdly enlisted the aid of Congressman J.C. Watts, a Republican from Oklahoma, and Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas. The trio, along with Democratic senator Max Cleland of Georgia, pushed a bill through both chambers and garnered a signature from President Bush in December, creating the bureaucratic-sounding National Museum for African American History and Culture Plan for Action Presidential Commission.

illustration: Heath Hinegardner

Then the commission hit the road, asking local communities what they'd like to see in the museum. Last week the commission brought the show to Harlem's Schomburg Center. The response was as varied as the crowd, which included everyone from academics and curators to engineers and architects eager to pitch in. They were particularly interested in unheralded heroes of African American history, such as veterans of the Korean War. Still, another issue kept coming up, just as it has in other cities. "In all three of the meetings, there has been an overwhelming feeling that the museum should talk about slavery and the Middle Passage," says Brown, who's also vice chair of the commission. "But people actually wanted numbers and data."

For the Smithsonian, the devil has often been in the details. Before the town meetings began, much of the talk had been vague if well intentioned. "I hope the museum, when it's built, will remind visitors of both the suffering and the triumph, the hurt that was overcome, the barriers that are being cast away," Bush told reporters, shortly after he signed the bill into law. But the presidential committee must determine exactly how to represent some of the grim realities of African American history. The institution has had a hard road when attempting to address weighty subjects—particularly ones dealing with people of color.

It's not been for lack of effort, however. As post-civil-rights multiculturalism began to grip the academy, it also gained a foothold in the Smithsonian. The result has been a more diverse staff and a re-appraising of many exhibits. The Museum of Natural History Africa Hall, for instance, was closed in 1993 so curators could update to a post-colonial view. In 1989, Congress authorized the building of the Native American Museum, and in 1987 the National Museum of American History opened "Field to Factory," an exhibit exploring the migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities.

Other attempts at multiculturalism have gone less swimmingly. In 1991, the National Museum of American Art opened an exhibit entitled "The West as America," part of which questioned the impact of pioneers on Native Americans. Then Smithsonian secretary Robert Adams was summoned to Congress and tongue-lashed for allegedly pushing a leftist agenda. A year later the Smithsonian examined the impact of Columbus's arrival in the Americas, and was met with similar accusations. It all paled in comparison to the dustup in 1995, when Martin O. Harwit, director of the National Air and Space Museum, was forced to resign over an exhibit that examined the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which veterans' groups viewed as too sympathetic to the Japanese.

Lonnie Bunch, president of the Chicago Historical Society and former associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of American History, says conflict emerges from the desire of museum professionals to create exhibits that don't just celebrate but question, and at times, disturb. "When you do history it is nothing but controversy and ambiguity," says Bunch. "Museums used to give simple answers to complex questions. But now what we want to do is tell fuller stories of history that include conflict, and when you do that you're going to get controversy every time."

The idea of a national African American museum had generally been accepted, until Lewis introduced legislation for one in 1988. Before anyone could break ground, much less hang an exhibit, the debate disintegrated into several interest camps. Some argued that the proposed museum should not be under the Smithsonian's rubric; others believed that the existence of a national facility would undercut local black museums around the country. Still others were angered that the museum was slated to be placed in the Arts and Industries Building—the second oldest building on the Mall.

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