Black Culture and History Matter

Black Culture and History Matter

It took 150 years after America officially abolished slavery to get a national museum on the black experience.

February 4, 2016

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture occupies a prominent space on the National Mall, between the National Museum of American History at 14th Street NW and the base of the Washington Monument. When the new museum opens in September 2016, it will be America’s first national museum dedicated to the full breadth of the black experience, and the largest in terms of size, scope, aspirations, capacity, and budget. Seen from the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, the 380,000-square-foot structure, a striking sculptural bronze-colored edifice in a sea of white Indiana limestone government buildings, blocks the view of the Washington Monument—as if to declare, Before you celebrate America’s founding president, pause to reflect on the Republic’s great omission.

The fact that it took more than 150 years after Emancipation for this museum to open reflects a complex story of America’s tangled understanding of its racial history—compounded by the challenge of raising money for its support. America, uniquely among the world’s wealthy nations, finances its great museums substantially with private donations. Though whites as well as blacks are free to contribute, the tacit assumption has been that black philanthropy would provide the bulk of the museum’s support. And here, the gross disparity in black wealth and white wealth reverberates, both in the under-funding of black institutions and in the delicate narrative dance needed to attract complementary government and white philanthropic help.

After the Civil War, many black museums did manage to get established. The Hampton University Museum, the nation’s first institutional repository of African American history, art, and science, was founded in 1868 and is still going strong. Hampton itself was established by the Freedmen’s Bureau. According to Samuel W. Black, president of the Association of African American Museums, the first half of the 20th century was a golden age for black collectors: Carter G. Woodson, Arturo Alphonso Schomburg, and Jesse E. Moorland were scholar antiquarians who amassed large collections, which formed the nucleus of library holdings at Howard University (from Woodson and Moorland) and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which became part of the New York Public Library in 1972.

Given limited black wealth, it’s hardly surprising that major black cultural institutions have been heavily reliant on periodic infusions of public funding. The new National Museum (NMAAHC) is no different. In 2003, after decades of extensive debate, Congress committed half of the $500 million needed to pay for the design and construction of the building and the installation of exhibitions, all under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution. The balance, $250 million, had to be raised from non-federal sources. Annual staff salaries and operations expenses, estimated at $44 million, are to be paid by the Smithsonian.

The NMAAHC is the first major museum to “open” on the web before its physical structure is even built. “We [combined] amazing artifacts” with “technology that will make history accessible,” says the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III. He and his fledgling staff mined archival material and oral history interviews to co-produce interactive shows like “Marian Anderson: Artist and Symbol,” a profile of the celebrated vocalist who gave a free concert in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000, having been barred from the DAR’s Constitution Hall; “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” presented at Monticello in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation; and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment.”

Among the tens of thousands of objects already acquired by the new museum are the tin wallet a freedman fashioned to store his freedom papers for safekeeping, the hymnal that belonged to Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner’s Bible (which underwent an extensive authentication process involving scientists and history scholars), a 77-ton, 80-foot-long restored Southern Railway Jim Crow car from about 1918, a prison guard tower from Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, and the silver dancing shoes and shimmering skin-tight dresses R&B group En Vogue wore in the video for “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).”

The museum also has acquired a mother lode of artifacts from Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign—detailed strategy notes; commercially manufactured and hand-painted buttons and banners, including a sign that hung in a Falls Church, Virginia, office that declares, “Obama’s not your mama—you have to clean up after yourself”; scripts and campaign literature in various languages; and furnishings from the “children’s center,” chief curator Jacquelyn Serwer told The Washington Post. Materials from the São José-Paquete de Africa, the Portuguese slave ship that crashed with a cargo of more than 400 enslaved bodies off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1794, have been made available for an initial ten-year loan.

 

YET WHAT EXACTLY IS the museum’s mission? The country has long debated how the black experience should be presented to the world, and so has the black community. Many blacks seeking sympathetic white allies believe the only way to tell that story is to present it as a universal experience. In 2014, in his “Address to the Nation on Immigration,” President Obama subscribed to this view. “We are and always will be a nation of immigrants,” he said, delicately sidestepping the fact that most ancestors of African Americans were forced immigrants, not to mention Native Americans whose only migration occurred when they were violently displaced from their homes.

But must the particularities of the African American experience be dissolved or diluted in the process of universalizing it? Must the framing of the black experience become a mechanism for further assimilation? Director Bunch, who began his professional museum career as the founding curator at the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago, walks that tightrope by depicting the black experience as the redemption of the nation’s original ideals. “The African American experience has … made real the statements of the founding documents,” he says. “And in some ways, our notions of what citizenship really means, what freedom means, really has been burnished, embellished, made real by African Americans.” In that respect, Bunch adds, “The museum’s task is very simple … to use history and culture as a way to make a better America, to give America an opportunity to close the chasm between its stated ideals and the reality of life.” What the museum is not, Bunch insists, is “an attempt to celebrate black culture for black Americans.” Instead, it “is an attempt to say, this history and this culture have profoundly shaped our notions of freedom, of citizenship, of who we are as Americans.”

The NMAAHC is opening at a point when many whites are taking a hard look at their own heritage. South Carolina State Senator Paul Thurmond, son of ardent segregationist and longtime U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, has acknowledged the many accomplishments his ancestors have made but repudiated his family’s role in the preservation of white supremacy. “I will never understand how anyone could fight a civil war based in part on the desire to continue the practice of slavery,” he told The Washington Post.

How, then, will the museum present the institution of slavery? “When it comes to slavery,” Bunch says, “our job is not to get beyond it … [but] to recognize that it still casts a large shadow over us today, and that until we understand its history, understand its legacy, only then can we really come together and begin to overcome the racial distinctions that divide us.”

 

THE MUSEUM'S FUNDRAISING challenge is “arguably the largest philanthropic effort in history driven by African Americans,” Black Enterprise magazine declared in 2012. Fund-raising has been proceeding for more than a decade. To date, the museum has raised 91 percent of its $250 million target, or about $227 million. Of that sum, nearly 100 foundations, corporations, and individuals have donated at least $204 million. The largest gift, $20 million, is a donation from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lilly Endowment each gave $10 million, and ten institutions have contributed at least $5 million each.

(Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture under construction in June 2015

Winfrey, one of fewer than ten African Americans with a net worth in excess of half a billion dollars, serves on the museum’s 29-member advisory council. Her initial gift of $1 million came in 2007, two years after Bunch was hired. The structure will include a state-of-the-art theater with a seating capacity of 350 that bears the media giant’s name.

At least two African American families are among the 13 donors at the $2 million level—Robert L. Johnson of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and of Charlotte Bobcats professional basketball team fame, and Amanda Stafford and her husband Earl W. Stafford, Unitech founder and creator of the People’s Inaugural Project that hosted more than 400 “disadvantaged” citizens at Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration events. At least $68 million has been raised, $1 million at a time, from corporations, foundations, and 23 family groups—such as actors LaTanya and Samuel L. Jackson and their daughter Zoe, and Mellody Hobson (Ariel Investments and Dreamworks Animation) and her husband George Lucas (Lucasfilm). Twelve of the 29 members of NMAAHC’s advisory council have contributed $1 million to the capital campaign.

Like other nonprofits, the museum has created multiple tiers of giving. An Ambassadors program invites personal donations of $5,000 to $24,999, with gifts paid out over a one-to-five-year period. Now numbering 250 members, the group, which is mostly people of color, has raised more than $1 million, says Tasha Coleman, senior manager for donor and board relations. In exchange for their gifts, Ambassadors are granted special access to the collections and to the education, IT, and curatorial staff, whose job it is to define the aesthetics and logistics behind the exhibitions. They are invited to explore history, generate ideas for research and exhibitions, beta-test exhibits and technology, and share their opinions about contemporary issues. The Ambassadors program also has become a vehicle to bring myriad academics and museum professionals together to share in the excitement of NMAAHC. The problem, of course, is the very limited pool of African Americans capable of large-scale giving.

 

BY CONTRAST, THE National Museum of American History, successor to the original 1846 Smithsonian Institution (“America’s Attic”), opened its doors in 1964 with a 750,000-square-foot structure, almost twice the size of NMAAHC. In 2014, a single contributor, philanthropist and education advocate Phyllis Taylor, donated $7.5 million for “educational outreach and a new learning space” that will bear the name of her late husband Patrick F. Taylor.

This stark difference in the amount and size of donations given to black-centered and other museums is not surprising. On average, white families’ net worth is 13 times that of blacks. Studies based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation data found that the net worth for the median white family was $111,146, versus $7,113 for black families. When you look at families whose head of household had earned a college degree, the average white family’s wealth grew to $180,500, whereas the wealth of the average black family whose head of household had earned a college degree was only about $23,400. Even when you look at families whose head of household had earned a graduate or professional degree, the gap between white and black families was more than $200,000, with the average white family accruing $293,100 and the average black family accruing only $84,000. (See Darrick Hamilton et al., “Still We Rise,” in The American Prospect’s Fall 2015 issue.)

All told, there are 19 Smithsonian museums and galleries, and 20 libraries in the U.S. and Panama. Museums kindle broad interest, which in turn generates support—or they languish, says Hamza Walker, director of education and associate curator at the Renaissance Society and co-curator of Los Angeles’s biennial, Made in L.A. 2016. The National Museum of African Art (NMAA) began in 1964 as a private institution in the Capitol Hill townhouse where abolitionist Frederick Douglass had lived from 1871 to 1877. It became a Smithsonian property in 1979, and opened on the National Mall in 1987. Since 2009, Johnnetta Cole, the first African American female president of Spelman College, has been its director. In 2013, when the NMAA announced a $1.8 million gift from the sultanate of Oman “to explore linkages between Omani and East African arts and culture,” it was the museum’s largest gift in its history.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian was established in 1989 by an act of Congress. The NMAI took on the daunting responsibility of re-imagining the historic relationships native people across the entire hemisphere have had with museums, and to tell that story collaboratively, through the eyes of multiple indigenous tribes and nations. When it opened its doors in 2004, more than 20,000 individuals marched in a triumphant Native Nations Procession. “The initial point was to celebrate the ongoing existence of these native peoples,” said Kevin Gover, director and member of the Pawnee Nation. With 40,000 members and a budget of $35.8 million, the NMAI has nonetheless been criticized because of its relatively low visitorship, which reached 2.2 million the year it opened and settled around 1.4 million each subsequent year. In 2014, Natural History (opened to the public in 1910), Air and Space (opened in 1976), and American History (opened in 1964) welcomed 7.3 million, 6.7 million, and 4 million visitors, respectively. In its second decade, NMAI will unveil a bold exhibit that looks at the incalculable consequences of native peoples’ “contact” with Europeans, “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.”

(Photo: AP/Brett Carlsen)

Lonnie Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, discusses the new museum on May 7, 2015. On the left is Derek Ross, the deputy director of the Smithsonian's Office of Facilities Construction Division.

Happily, membership at the NMAAHC is unparalleled within the Smithsonian constellation. “We have 80,000 members and we haven’t even opened our doors,” says Coleman. “We [launched] the charter membership [program] early,” she adds, a strategy that has paid off. “This is an expensive proposition and we wanted the public to have ownership, so we let the drive be part of spreading the word and getting the museum opened.”

Is this feat the work of a large staff? “My staff? Hilarious!” Coleman says. In 2015, a decade after she came on board, Coleman gained the aid of a single program assistant. NMAAHC’s development staff includes Adrienne Brooks, director of development, and five development officers, three associates, and five or so others. By comparison, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, one of the world’s preeminent scientific and cultural institutions, has an institutional advancement staff of about 60—including those who work in individual giving, membership, foundations, special-event planning, corporate relations, and government relations—as well as another 35 or so full- and part-time membership staff who work on the museum floor and attend to the needs of members and visitors when the museum is open.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1993, has hosted 38.6 million visitors to date (24 percent schoolchildren, 12 percent non-U.S. residents, and 90 percent non-Jewish). It may well have the most effective membership program in the country. Begun in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, the museum was dedicated 15 years later by President Bill Clinton, after a four-year construction period. For the 2015 fiscal year, the institution—which is not part of the Smithsonian—requested an operating budget of $98 million, about half from federal sources.

The Holocaust Museum, which has an endowment worth about $400 million, has established a new fundraising goal of $540 million for its “Never Again: What You Do Matters” campaign, which extends through 2018. In addition, the museum maintains five regional offices across the country, where programming includes exhibits, galas, and opportunities to meet citizens whose work advances the museum’s mission.

Given the sheer disparity of resources and political influence, as well as the fraught history of race in America, it’s remarkable that the new NMAAHC is doing as well as it is. While there was never an assumption that financing the construction of the NMAAHC would be the sole responsibility of blacks, African Americans’ more limited resources are devoted primarily to funding the next generation’s higher education and homeownership, and to aiding their communities of faith.

 

THE NMAAHC HAS been long in the making—100 years, to be precise. Its genesis dates to 1915. Fifty years earlier, in May 1865, President Andrew Johnson organized a Grand Review of the Armies to honor the troops. But black soldiers who had fought in the Civil War were not allowed to join the military procession from Capitol Hill down Pennsylvania Avenue.

In 1915, at the 50th anniversary of the original Union victory parade, black Union veterans were permitted to participate. A Committee of Colored Citizens was organized to help defray expenses. The veterans group would evolve into the National Memorial Association, which lobbied Congress to authorize the construction of a Negro Memorial.

During the 1920s, several bills were introduced, but funding was not forthcoming. Then, in 1929, as he was exiting the White House, President Calvin Coolidge signed Public Resolution 107, creating the National Memorial Commission and authorizing it to construct a memorial building at a cost of $500,000 as “a tribute to the Negro’s contributions to the achievements of America.” But the entire enterprise was shelved after the October stock market crash.

President Herbert Hoover appointed a 12-member commission that included Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune and, in 1930, the Senate voted to allocate $12,500 to the commission to fund an exploratory study, but the measure was defeated by the House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt somewhat surprisingly, given his reputation as a progressive, abolished the commission, then tasked the Department of the Interior with constructing the building, only to turn down the agency’s request for development expenses. In 1934, he rejected a proposal to make the memorial a WPA project.

Interest was rekindled after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, but no concrete plans developed until the 1980s, when congressional legislation mandated that a national museum of African American history and culture would become a part of the Smithsonian Institution and an “African American Institutional Study” was undertaken. This, too, proved too divisive to receive funding.

During this period, Tom Mack, an African American and the president of Tourmobile, a sightseeing bus service based in the capital, began to advocate for an independent national black history museum to be built on the National Mall and won the support of Representative Mickey Leland, a Texas Democrat. Leland’s nonbinding resolution (H.R. 666) passed in the House in 1986, but went no further. Ultimately, the measure became a catalyst for public conversations about the absence of black curators, researchers, conservators, and upper-level administrators across the Smithsonian, and the paucity of exhibitions that referenced the black experience. It also helped to clarify two key proposals that were circulating among national black history museum advocates: The Smithsonian should not acquire an existing black cultural institution; instead, a national black history museum should be created under the auspices of the institution.

In 1994, Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina blocked the museum project on the grounds that it would be duplicative—he cited the existence of the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Museum of African Art, both Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian affiliates, and he inflamed opposition to the legislation by charging that “black separatist groups” like the Nation of Islam would be allowed to participate.

(Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group)

A rendering shows the museum's central hall, which will feature multimedia displays. Softly lit wooden planks form the ceiling.

Enduring support for the project ultimately came from an unexpected source. After discussions and legislative debates spanning 88 years and 16 presidencies, it was George W. Bush who formed the Plan for Action Presidential Commission (Public Law 107-106) that would make the recommendation, in 2003, to establish the museum as an act of Congress. Bipartisan support from Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback and Democratic Representatives John Larson and John Lewis was key. Bush also would sign H.R. 3491, an act establishing the National Museum of African American History and Culture within the Smithsonian Institution, and affirm that the structure should be built on the National Mall. The NMAAHC would be dedicated to the “legacy of African Americans [which is] rooted in the very fabric of the democracy and freedom of the United States.”

 

THE MUSEUM ITSELF IS a stunning structure. Ten stories in all—five of them aboveground—the NMAAHC is sheathed in a three-tiered bronze-colored corona consisting of 3,600 panels that fit together to form a lacey scrim reminiscent of the ornamental ironworks executed by free and enslaved African American artisans in Charleston and New Orleans.

It was designed by a collaboration that includes architect of record Phil Freelon of the Freelon Group (North Carolina), lead designer David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates (London and New York), and Davis Brody Bond (New York, Washington, D.C., and São Paolo), with engineering support from the SmithGroup (Detroit). Together they brought prior experience in planning, programming, and designing African American–themed museums, including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture (Baltimore), the Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco), and the Studio Museum in Harlem. (Disclosure: I was a consultant to the Freelon group.)

Just as a corona inspired by Yoruba art and architecture sits atop the NMAAHC, the museum sits on the shoulders of the African American museums, galleries, libraries, archives, and cultural centers that precede it. All told, there are more than 160 museums large and small (mostly small) devoted to the black experience in America. Most struggle to stay alive. Many of the older institutions have budgets of less than $1 million and are run by their founders, says Samuel Black. “What does the board look like? Friends of the director,” he says.

Some have gone under or barely survived. During the 1950s, a handful of black museums were founded by “self-taught museum directors, who used [their] own funds to build a collection,” Black observes. Icabod Flewellen, founder of the Cleveland African American Museum, “one of the first independent African American museums in the Americas,” was one such director, says Black. “He did not have an academic degree in the field—learned on the job,” Black says. The Cleveland museum closed in 2005 after the founder’s death, and reopened part time in 2009, staffed by volunteers.

When cultural centers fail to define clear missions or find their audiences, financial shortfalls are sure to follow. The Hispanic Society of America (HSA), a “free museum and reference library for the study of the arts and cultures of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America,” located in New York City’s largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood, is home to a coveted collection that includes works by Spanish painters Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida and Diego Velázquez, and mapmaker Juan Vespucci, Amerigo Vespucci’s nephew. The HSA’s physical constraints were noted in 2011 by The New York Times—“inadequate exhibition space, no cafeteria or gift shop, and a facade and roof that need major work,” but those concerns are dwarfed by the institution’s decades-old problem: how to relate to the largely Latino neighborhood where it resides while keeping faith with its mission to collect art objects that capture “the soul of Spain.” In recent years, the HSA has partnered with the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York to make some of the collection’s early maps of the Dominican Republic available online. “I call it a new age,” Institute Director Ramona Hernández told the Times. “We’re doing wonderful things with the Hispanic Society.”

(Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, shown under construction in June 2015

Some institutions have introduced admission-free days in an attempt to make their collections accessible to a broad audience. The Studio Museum in Harlem introduced “Target Free Sundays” with the support of the Target Corporation and also offers a range of benefits to members that includes special guest points for reservations at the Aloft Hotel and discounts for a “Pitcher of Mimosas” at restaurant Harlem Shake. Like the NMAAHC, Studio Museum has announced a major capital campaign to build a new facility. The planned five-story structure will provide about 50 percent more space for galleries and the Artist-in-Residence Program. Tanzanian-born Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, co-designer of the new NMAAHC, will design the structure. He is the 1993 winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects award, and his work includes the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway, the UK’s London Idea Store Whitechapel—“a radical rethink of the public library”—and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. New York City’s Mayor’s Office, the City Council, and the Office of the Manhattan Borough President have committed $35 million of the $122 million cost. Thelma Golden, Studio Museum’s virtuosic director and chief curator, has developed a well-deserved international reputation both for identifying new and exciting artists of color and for conceiving provocative and groundbreaking exhibitions.

According to Ford W. Bell, former president of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), “unlike the model found in most of the world, where museums are largely supported by the national government, American museums keep their operations going by cobbling together a mosaic of funding sources, from government sources, from the private sector and, increasingly, from earned income.”

“We’ve been screaming very loud for 20 years that the major funding sources are ignoring us or giving us what we call ‘Negro money,’” Samuel Black, the black museums association president, told The Washington Informer. “Negro money means if we ask for $4 million, we get $15,000, which really is money to go away, money that can’t help us reach our projected goals.”

The opening of the National Museum could hardly be more timely. America is in another of its episodic engagements with the meaning of its racial history. There is belated recognition and debate of the fact that police violence against blacks did not end with the civil-rights movement, and that the opening of all-white universities to blacks did not end institutional racism. From the other end of the political spectrum, racial suppression has again become open and ugly. The year 2003, when Congress at last approved partial funding of the museum, feels like another era of cross-partisan collaboration. Today, it is hard to imagine Tea Party–afflicted conservatives voting for such a project. (Perhaps the Smithsonian’s next project should be a museum of bipartisanship.) In a sense, the NMAAHC made it just in time, before the window closed yet again. 

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