Helms vows to block African-American museum Senate filibuster could kill measure to create Smithsonian facility on Mall

October 04, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jesse Helms is threatening to single-handedly block creation of the Smithsonian Institution's National African American Museum, a project envisioned by its supporters as one of the nation's leading repositories of items pertaining to black history and culture.

After months of stalling a bill to create the museum, the North Carolina Republican is threatening to filibuster the measure. A filibuster could kill the bill because the Senate is scheduled to adjourn Friday.

"If this legislation doesn't pass this year it will be a major setback," said Claudine Brown, director of the museum project for the Smithsonian. "It would mean we have to go through the entire legislative process again. It means we delay fund raising. Every year we delay, resources are lost to us."

In trying to block the project, Mr. Helms has raised a slew of objections, including that the proposed museum duplicates other Smithsonian exhibitions and would be a waste of money.

The museum has been in the planning stages for about a decade. Last year, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, both Democrats, introduced legislation to establish the Smithsonian's National African American Museum, which would be the second national museum on the Mall to be dedicated to a racial minority.

In 1989, Congress authorized the creation of a Smithsonian museum dedicated to the culture and history of the American Indian, which supporters hope will be built by the year 2000.

The legislation to create the museum has passed the House and a Senate committee. But the measure has not been taken before the full Senate because of Mr. Helms' threat to block the bill. In 1983, Mr. Helms led a lonely and unsuccessful filibuster to try to prevent the establishment of a national holiday to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The proposed museum -- which Ms. Brown said could open by the year 2000, if authorized this year -- would be housed in the museum's 116-year-old Arts and Industries Building, which would be renovated.

The cost of establishing the museum is unknown, Ms. Brown said, because without congressional authorization, the Smithsonian has been unable to plan what exhibits would be necessary to display the wares.

In any case, she said, the costs to establish the museum are slated to be privately funded, although, like other Smithsonian facilities, its operating costs will be paid by the federal government.

Despite the legislative delays, the Smithsonian has established the temporary National African American Museum Project, which has been running public programs, including lectures, book readings and films. The project has also opened a related exhibition in the Arts and Industries Building to try to raise awareness of the planned museum.

Mr. Helms, a conservative Republican, opposes the museum as unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Also, he said, because "the Smithsonian already has two related museums -- the Anacostia Museum and the African Art Museum," both of which are in Washington.

In a letter to the Smithsonian, the senator has also raised questions about the museum's policy regarding participation by "the Nation of Islam and other radical 'black separatist' groups."

Supporters of the project dispute Mr. Helms' assertions. They say that the Nation of Islam is not participating and that the capital costs of the museum are to be privately financed. They also say the two museums mentioned by Mr. Helms differ substantially in mission and scope from the planned museum, which would take up 177,000 square feet.

"The Smithsonian created the Anacostia Museum as a neighborhood and community museum in 1967," Mr. Simon said in a statement. "It was never meant to be a world-class or national institution."

Added Ms. Brown: "I think people should realize there is a real big difference between the African-American experience and the African experience."

Mr. Simon hopes to bring the bill to a vote on the Senate floor. But he may have to do it by attaching it to legislation that Mr. Helms would be unwilling to block, said David Carle, Mr. Simon's press secretary.

Led by Ms. Brown, a small group of Smithsonian employees has been working for several years to gather material for the planned museum. So far, they have identified about 400 potential donors who have more than 30,000 objects that they maybe willing to donate to the museum.

Discussion of a African-American museum on the Mall began in earnest in the mid-1980s, led by Tom Mack, president of Tourmobile, a tour-bus company here.

In 1985, Mr. Mack called on the late Rep. Mickey Leland, a Texas Democrat, to promote the idea. Mr. Leland's efforts led a year later to a congressional resolution that said an African-American museum should be built to "recognize the heritage and accomplishments of all African Americans."

Mr. Mack dropped out of the project last year after Congress decided that it would be led by the Smithsonian, which, Mr. Mack said yesterday, "has for the entirety of its existence been racist organization and does not deserve to control an African-American museum."

"I have mixed feelings about this, because of the Smithsonian's role," Mr. Mack said of Mr. Helms' efforts to block the museum. "But I believe no one should object to any advancement of knowledge about our racially divided country. I think it is a hindrance, and a disservice to the country."

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