Traveling Exhibit


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.

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.

Lewis was finally able to build a consensus in 1994, giving him a decent shot at having his bill passed, only to have North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms manipulate Senate rules and keep the measure from coming to a vote. When Congress reconvened, it was with a Republican majority that emphasized expense-slashing. An African American museum, an idea that had always been pushed by Democrats, was not on the agenda. “The thinking was that Congress was talking about a balanced budget,” says Claudine Brown, then project director for the African American Museum Project. “And so we were told that there would be no new projects until the budget was balanced.”

Yet museum advocates held out the prospect that Democrats could once again finagle control of Congress, and put the African American Museum back up for discussion. That control, with the exception of a two-year reprieve in the Senate, never came. Now it appears that if a museum is built, much of the important work will be done under the stewardship of a Republican-dominated government.

Taking note of the political realities, Lewis enlisted a more diverse coalition of allies than the corps of liberal academics who backed the project in 1991. The new panel includes whites, African Americans, scholars, businessmen, Democrats, and Republicans. “Some people think that Republicans are not interested in certain issues. I beg to differ,” says commission chair Bob Wright, who has long been active in the Republican Party. “John Lewis kept this issue alive. But it really has become a bipartisan effort. . . . I don’t think it’s a Republican or Democratic issue.”

Bipartisanship has its advantages. With Republican legislators co-sponsoring the effort, moving it through Congress should be substantially easier. It will not ease what is almost certain to be another intense debate over what the museum should look like and the conclusions it should draw about the country that so often played an ignominious role in African American history. Already the Holocaust museum has been mentioned as a model. “This museum, like the United States Holocaust Museum, should take the visitor through the different eras of the African American legacy,” said Brownback in a statement. “From slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Reconstruction, and Exodus to Kansas, through the civil rights movement to present day and beyond.”

Brown notes that in almost every city, the Holocaust Museum comes up as a possible prototype for discussing the Middle Passage and slavery. “The feeling is that [the Holocaust Museum] is very effective, and we should be telling that part of our story with equal effectiveness,” says Brown. Assiduously researched and deftly assembled, the Holocaust Museum works to demonstrate the singular horror of the ghettos and concentration camps.

But there are critical differences between the Holocaust and the many travesties that dot the African American experience. First, the Holocaust did not happen on American soil. Second, few would romanticize it—there’s no Gone With the Wind for Nazi Germany. No descendants of the Nazis turned out to protest the museum’s depiction of Germany, unlike here, where descendants of Confederate soldiers serve in Congress and could take issue with the museum’s perspective on the Civil War.

The legacy of the South and the Confederacy has long been a sticking point in the American mind. Southern whites remembered an idyllic past that extolled admirable virtues like independence, rugged individualism, and chivalry. From the black perspective, the South is an Auschwitz—birthplace of Jim Crow, the Tuskeegee syphilis experiments, and the Rosewood massacre. Much of the South’s dark past is closer than we think. Latter-day segregationist Strom Thurmond, who once filibustered for a day in hopes of derailing a civil rights bill, is just now leaving the Senate.

Grappling with the horrors committed under the foreign Nazi regime is one thing. Grappling with America’s own native holocaust is quite another. “It is not possible to tour [the Holocaust Museum] . . . and not come away muttering, ‘How could they?’ ” recently wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently. “A museum dedicated to African American history would produce the same result. It is not possible to see pictures of slaves in chains or the charred bodies of lynched men and not ask yourself, ‘How could they?’ But the ‘they’ in this case are not Germans or other Europeans. They are we.”

These are weighty issues, ones that, for now, the presidential commissioners will not have to address. Content is not in their immediate purview. For now, the panel must deal with more mundane yet essential tasks, like nailing down a location and putting together a fundraising plan. While proponents of the museum are happy to see it progressing, the legislation signed by Bush does not guarantee the construction of a museum. Two of the bill’s sponsors won’t be present when Congress reconvenes—Senator Cleland lost his re-election bid and Representative Watts is retiring. Museum supporters are in a battle for space, as the National Park Service will not allow building past a certain point on the Mall. Furthermore, there are several other museum ideas being floated, including one dedicated to Hispanic Americans.

The presidential commissioners certainly have a vision for what they would like to see occur on the Mall. Wright argues that the vision should be inclusive, neither ignoring nor becoming weighed down by some of the darker aspects of American history. “I think that when you talk about history, you have to really talk about it as it was,” says Wright. “But the story of African Americans goes beyond just slavery.”