Work is under way on two museums that their creators believe will help the public see that the African-American experience is an integral element of the American experience.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, the state capital, will help visitors gain broad perspectives about black people in America and even globally, their creators say. The Washington museum opens at the end of 2015, the Mississippi site in fall 2017.
“Those are going to be game changers,” says Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums and director of African-American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
The museum in Washington, decades in the planning and approved by Congress two years ago, is part of the Smithsonian Institution and has a unique opportunity because it sits on the National Mall and will be seen by visitors from all over the world, Black says.
The 330,000-square-foot National Museum of African-American Culture and History will house artifacts, art, audio recordings and other items of interest from eras that include slavery, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement. The collection includes a shawl given to Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman by Britain’s Queen Victoria, slave shackles believed to be from West Africa and one of the Motherships (a stage prop) used by the R&B group Parliament Funkadelic during concerts.
The goal is to bring African-American culture out of the wings, says Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian museum. “Our notions of liberty, citizenship, equality have all been profoundly shaped by the African-American experience,” Bunch says. “What I want is for people to realize this is their story.”
Freelon Group Architects, based in Durham, N.C., is the architect of record. Firm founder Phil Freelon says he and fellow project architects David Adjaye and Max Bond wanted the bronze building to respect its surroundings of the National Mall and the Washington Monument, and also have a sense of permanence and durability.
“The bronze element of the exterior is something that speaks to this,” Freelon says. “It’s an ancient material, it’s one that has meaning across time, and it was a deliberate choice to have a modern interpretation of this material that’s understood as one that has historical meaning.”
The Freelon firm also is the architect for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, a 72,506-square-foot space that will share a site with the new Museum of Mississippi History.
The Mississippi museum is still early in the planning stages, but it was intentional, and symbolic, that the two structures share a central outdoor space, Freelon says. “That was our way of acknowledging the notion of reconciliation of two parts that are coming together.”
The Mississippi and Washington museums are part of a trend in recent decades of the construction of prominent institutions for African-American culture and history in major cities. But African-American museums can be as small as a private, one-room building with a staff of one, Black says. The first such institution was the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Va., founded in 1868.
The Mississippi institution is the first state-supported civil rights museum in the country. Mississippi is spending $40 million to build the exterior of that building and the other museum that will share the site, and another $40 million for the exhibits and interior. Fundraising is under way for the $14 million in private money needed, and the state will pay a matching $14 million for exhibits.
Bunch says $400 million of the $500 million needed for the Smithsonian museum has been raised.
“I was confident when we didn’t have anything,” Bunch says. “I think the reality is that people realize the time is right.”