Rich culture, site's symbolism should suit each other

African-American museum gains prominence on Mall

Critical Eye

February 05, 2006|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

BY VIRTUE OF ITS WASHINGTON location and federal backing, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will have the opportunity and the mandate to tell a more sweeping story about the African-American experience than regional museums devoted to the same subject.

The selection of a site on the National Mall, made official last week, will go a long way toward giving the institution the visibility and clout it needs to raise funds, collect artifacts and complete the building that will enable it to carry out its mission.

The five-acre parcel at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, next to the Washington Monument, has its share of potential drawbacks, including height restrictions, limited on-site parking, layers of design review and being located in an area considered at high risk of terrorism.

But any drawbacks are more than offset by having such a prominent and symbolic location, according to the man charged with making the museum a reality over the next decade, founding director Lonnie G. Bunch.

The National Mall is "a place the world goes to learn about American culture. So it's fitting and proper that this museum be among the museums and monuments" that make the Mall a world-renowned location, Bunch said in an interview after the site was selected.

Even more important to him than the symbolic value of the location, he said, is the visibility it will give the museum.

"This is a place that will make sure most Americans have access to the rich story of African-American culture," he said. "And frankly, the visibility helps us with fundraising."

The new museum, in turn, should make the Mall more of a cultural magnet, said Bunch, who previously served as president of the Chicago Historical Society.

"It will be national in scope," he said. "We will be able to tell the full sweep of the African-American experience. Whether it's about slavery or civil rights or the migration of blacks from the South to the North, we can tie the story together in a way that other museums cannot."

The museum is part of a trend that has brought the completion of more than a dozen museums in American cities focusing on African-American history and culture in recent years. More are in the works, including an International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, N.C.

The $34 million Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which opened in downtown Baltimore last year, is the largest museum of its kind on the East Coast and the second largest in the country, after one in Detroit.

The Washington museum was established on Dec. 19, 2003, when President Bush signed legislation creating it as part of the Smithsonian Institution. It will be the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, art, history and culture.

With an estimated cost of $300 million to $500 million, a staff of 200 and a projected size of 350,000 square feet, it's likely to be the largest and most expensive African-American museum in the country. Completion is expected within a decade.

The site, bounded by Constitution Avenue, Madison Drive and 14th and 15th streets, N.W., is federal parkland across from the National Museum of American History. It was chosen from among four sites presented to the museum's Board of Regents -- two of which were on the Mall. (The other site on the Mall was an historic building, which would have limited the nature of spaces inside.) The federal government will pay 50 percent of the project's costs; the museum must raise the rest.

Now that a site has been selected, the staff can move ahead with developing its plans for interior spaces, hiring a design team, raising funds and building a collection.

The museum has a 17-member Board of Regents, a 19-member Museum Council and a Scholarly Advisory Committee that will advise the director on exhibition content and programming. Council members include celebrities such as TV personality Oprah Winfrey and producer Quincy Jones.

The museum will contain room for permanent and changing exhibits, an auditorium, staff offices, a gift shop and other spaces. In many respects, planners are following the precedent of the National Museum of the American Indian, the last Smithsonian museum to open, in 2004, on the Mall.

A vision takes shape

In an address last year to the Association of African American Museums, Bunch said he envisions a museum that will "celebrate and honor" African-Americans by "reveling in and revealing the richness, the lessons, the ambiguities, the challenges and the beauty" of their culture.

"I see interactive exhibits on the history and legacy of slavery, on the Cultural Renaissance of the 1920s, on the Civil Rights movement," he said. "But I also see the opportunity to explore cultural expressions like dance, performance and, of course, art. While the museum must explore the large stories, it must also provide glimpses into more intimate moments of the African-American story."

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