The Challenge of Building a National Museum

On Tuesday 25th June I attended the 24th Annual DW Bryant Lecture at the Eccles Centre for American Studies in the British Library. This year’s speaker was Lonnie G Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is located in the National Mall in Washington D.C. Bunch has also just been made the new secretary of the Smithsonian, the first African American to hold this important and prestigious position.

Lonnie G Bunch III

In this fascinating talk, Bunch discussed the long story behind the making of this landmark institution which finally opened in September 2016, tracing its origins to the early 20th century. He told of the many events which derailed attempts to raise funding and support for an African American museum, such as the outbreak of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. However, he began his talk by making the important point that we can learn a lot about a nation by looking at what it chooses to remember and celebrate, but can also learn a lot by what it chooses to forget. Therefore, in creating a new ‘national’ museum, he was faced with a number of difficult questions: where should the museum be located? What should the museum look like? Who is it for? What story or stories should it tell? How should these stories be told? What do we want visitors to experience? How do we go about building collections?

Bunch outlined his desire to build a museum about the African American experience that would speak to all Americans, by no means a simple task. Indeed, he recalled how he had encountered radically contrasting opinions from African Americans. There were those who wanted a celebratory museum that created a positive story, and those who wanted to focus on the damage done by white America. His approach was to provide a place where visitors could embrace with what he termed the ‘ambiguity’ of American history, those areas of the past in which clear cut explanations and interpretations are more difficult, primarily by trying to incorporate different perspectives on the subjects covered. One of the more remarkable parts of the talk was on the creation of collections for the museum. The majority of the items were found in the basements and attics of ordinary African Americans, such as some previously undiscovered photographs of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The design of the building also has an interesting story. Besides the significance of being located in the National Mall (America’s monument to itself) and adjacent to the Washington Monument, the building is strikingly different from the white neo-classical style which dominates Washington DC. The design was inspired by a mixture of Yoruban and Caribbean art, with the building is covered with a bronze-coloured lattice that pays tribute to metalwork created by enslaved peoples in the American South.

The Museum with the Washington Monument on the right.

This was a very inspiring talk in which Bunch not only told a fascinating story, but as he explained, the museum showcases what America is capable of achieving when people from across the political and social spectrum work together. This has to offer hope in times of social, political and indeed environmental alarm. I am also now more excited than ever to visit the museum with students from the University of Gloucestershire on our first trip to Washington DC in March 2020.  

Christian O’Connell

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