Here’s What to Expect at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The long-awaited museum is slated to open next year.
Here’s What to Expect at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photograph by Michael Barnes, courtesy the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It’s been 12 years since President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Following years of fundraising, artifact collection, and construction, the museum is finally near completion.

For founding director Lonnie G. Bunch, it’s been a long journey. “Ten years ago, we began this endeavor with a staff of two. We didn’t have a penny to our name or a single artifact in the collection,” he said at a press conference Thursday. “Now we have a staff of 169 people, 40,000 artifacts, and $476 million in public and private money.”

While the museum is not expected to open until late 2016, you can get a glimpse of what it will contain starting today. A preview exhibition debuting at the Museum of American History, called “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” features 140 items, including some belonging to Harriet Tubman, fashion designer Ann Lowe, R&B group En Vogue, and tennis star Althea Gibson.

Constructed on the last useable area on the National Mall, the new museum is set to be quite the spectacle. It’ll be the first LEED Gold-certified museum on the Mall, with an exterior embellished by 3,600 panels that mimic the ornamental iron styles of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Inside, museum-goers will meander through about 105,000 square feet of exhibition space. There, they’ll find three galleries organized thematically: history, culture, and community. 11 inaugural exhibitions are planned for the opening, including “Slavery and Freedom,” “Musical Crossroads,” and a sports-centric show.

James Brown’s red suit. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Museum staff has traveled far and wide—from DC to Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Topeka, and beyond—collecting artifacts to fill the space. Since 2008, they’ve been working on “Save Our African American Treasures,” an Antique Roadshow-like program dedicated to preserving and collecting items of African American culture. Sure, the museum added James Brown’s organ and red suit to its collection. But it also has relics found in regular people’s basements and attics. Other items come from the present: “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, which Bunch says a curator might find handy 50 years from now.

Through these items, Bunch hopes to tell a story that’s not only African-American, but also about the country as a whole. “Regardless of race, we’re all shaped in profound ways by the African-American experience,” he said.

Before the big day, Bunch has to raise $50 to $70 million more, all while keeping Washington—and the rest of the country—excited about the museum’s debut. He’s doing a pretty good job: The museum already has more than 80,000 members nationwide.

As for a precise opening date? According to Bunch, that depends entirely on one thing: The availability of President Barack Obama, who will be cutting the ribbon.

Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection” opens on May 8 at the National Museum of American History.

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