The Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will not open until 2016. While that site finishes construction, an exhibit opening Friday at the National Museum of American History offers a glimpse into the future African American institution’s growing collection.
The exhibit opening this week, “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” will present a coming attraction of various facets that will be fleshed out fully in the new building under construction on the National Mall. The American History museum is presenting a miniature version of the African American one, with sections on history, community and culture that eventually are expected to take up an entire floor or more in the new five-story building.
The history displays will address slavery and life on plantations as well as the Underground Railroad and its conductor Harriet Tubman. But it will also tell about lesser-known aspects, like the story of the Perkins-Dennis family whose patriarch Prince Perkins served in the Revolutionary War and used his earnings to buy the Pennsylvania farm his descendants still own.
“We wanted to show the sweep and scope of African-American history, including families who were never enslaved,” according to one of the curators, Rhea L. Combs. They want visitors who travel through the exhibition to get a diverse sense of “what African-American people experienced throughout America’s history, including moments of strength, resilience and jubilation,” she noted.
There is a section on military service and African Americans, including a photo taken of the Civil War infantry unit depicted in the film Glory, the Massachusetts’ 55th Volunteer Regiment. There is a World War I Croix de Guerre medal earned by infantryman Lawrence McVey, who was part of the “Harlem Hellfighters” unit under French command, because the American military relegated blacks serving in the war to unloading ships.
There is also a display on a collaboration between Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and black educator Booker T. Washington. They worked to build schools for black children in the rural South.
The section on culture looks at African-American musicians, artists, writers and athletes. In the music arena, the eventual museum will feature Blues, jazz, Motown sounds, Rap and more. The microcosm exhibit includes James Brown’s electric organ and the silver dresses worn by the group En Vogue in their video for My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).
The idea for an African American museum had been mulled over for decades. Some worried that every minority group would want a museum. However, there is now an American Indian Smithsonian Museum and a National Japanese American Museum.
Finally, in 2001, a bipartisan coalition pushed for development. A couple of years later, Congress passed legislation that established the National Museum for African American History and Culture.
The last decade has been spent turning that agreement into reality. “When we started, we didn’t have any collections at all. And now, over the last decade, we’ve collected 40,000 artifacts,” Museum Director Lonnie Bunch has said.
The African American History Museum is coming into shape at a time when the African American experience is at the forefront of the national consciousness. The 150-year anniversaries of the end of the Civil War as well as strife in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore have drawn attention The African American museum, when it opens, will tell a continually evolving story, but for now the National Museum of American History offers a glimpse on some artifacts to be included in the future African American site.
By Dyanne Weiss
Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian