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New African American History Museum Carries on a Radical Museum Tradition


Andrea Burns is an associate professor of public history at Appalachian State University. Her book, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (2013) won the 2015 National Council on Public History Best Book Award.

On a recent fall day at the university where I teach, maintenance crews could be seen washing chalk markings off various campus sidewalks. The markings included anti–Black Lives Matter slogans and other epithets that students, faculty, and staff found deeply offensive. University administrators issued a strong response and condemnation of this hate speech and proposed measures to prevent this from happening again. The appearance of these markings coincides with the rise of on-campus student activism in the Black Lives Matter movement. With the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott on September 20, the list of cities beset by unrest extends to Charlotte, North Carolina, just two hours from our campus. It seems, then, that this is an ominous, deeply fraught moment for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to open its doors. Yet a glance at the violent headlines of recent months, or a glimpse of the chalk markings and the distraught reaction of students, tells us that the museum’s opening has never been more crucial.

The debut of the NMAAHC marks the culmination of a museum-building campaign that spanned more than a century, beginning with a group of African American Civil War veterans in the early 1900s that pushed for the authorization of a federally sponsored building that honored African American contributions to the United States. Although their crusade was unsuccessful, black activists and some white allies in the federal government and the museum field picked up the movement again during the 1960s and 1980s. The final authorization for the NMAAHC came in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration. The campaign to build a national museum has thus occupied a space in the dialogue and aspirations of African Americans for generations and has been deeply influenced by the growth and shifts of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, and now, the Black Lives Matter movement.

The NMAAHC is not, of course, the first museum of African American history to be identified as a “national” museum (see, for example, the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, founded in 1987). Nor is it the first branch of the Smithsonian Institution to be dedicated to African American history: the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, founded in 1967 and now known as the Anacostia Community Museum, has that honor. Yet the NMAAHC is the first museum of African American history to occupy a space on the National Mall, in knowing sight of the Washington Monument and the White House. The museum’s founders and advocates understood the geography of power, wherein the space and neighborhood that a monument or museum occupies can determine its success and, rightly or wrongly, denote its importance. The NMAAHC’s hard-sought position on the National Mall thus demanded that it possess an architectural power comparable to that of its neighbors. Architect David Adjaye’s design, which draws from the artistic and cultural traditions of the African diaspora, is, as a New York Times review noted, simply like nothing that we have seen before in a Smithsonian museum.

Although I have not yet had the opportunity to see the NMAAHC in person, I would argue that the museum’s closest counterparts in Washington are the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the Anacostia Community Museum. While the architecture and content of these buildings are obviously fundamentally different, these institutions both present a deliberate internal and external counternarrative to the neoclassical architectural tradition and Eurocentric museological standards historically embraced by the other Smithsonian museums.

Within the first few years of its opening, the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) began to focus on the immediate stories and needs of the museum’s target community: African Americans living in the predominantly black neighborhood of Anacostia. Rather than feature collections primarily dictated by wealthy white donors, its exhibits and programs signaled an unusual rebuke to the museum establishment. The ACM’s subversive mission resulted in groundbreaking exhibitions like “The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction” (1969), which documented how rat infestation hurt the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Washington, including the neighborhood surrounding the museum. The ACM joined other newly established African American neighborhood museums—including the DuSable Museum in Chicago (founded in 1961) and the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit (founded in 1965 and now known as the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History)—in emphasizing stories and creating educational programs that related to the black experience at home and abroad. The DuSable Museum, for instance, held teacher training classes on black history and sent teams of volunteers to Chicago’s South Side with information about the museum’s exhibits. The International Afro-American Museum’s founders thought that a mobile museum might be a more effective tool to reach audiences than a traditional bricks-and mortar one, and thus created a “museum on wheels” that toured Detroit’s black communities after the city’s devastating riot in 1967. The difficulties these museums experienced in securing significant funding and attention underscored their ideological separation from other “mainstream” museums. Yet the impact of their exhibits and outreach programs, together with the concurrent revolution in telling history “from the bottom up,” would result in a sea change in how traditional museums began to present their stories and include diverse audiences.

As we begin to critically assess the NMAAHC’s content and presentation, it is also instructive to remember the reception that the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) received upon its opening in 2004. Many were aghast by how the NMAI curators presented their artifacts. In contrast to the traditional emphasis on explanatory labels, the NMAI offered very little text and a very different method of artifact organization—one that deviated from typical linear narratives presented by mainstream museums. Amanda Cobb, editor of the American Indian Quarterly, argues that these decisions were deliberate: the NMAI staff chose not to conform to western museological standards, because these very standards had worked for centuries to “exploit and objectify” Native Americans.[1] In form and content the NMAAHC thus hopes to follow in the ideological footprints of these unconventional museums.

There have been a few, somewhat negative reviews of the NMAAHC. A Washington Post review by Philip Kennicott, for example, laments the hard-to-read text panels and onslaught of distracting, overly loud media presentations that seem to be tailor-made for inattentive, “edutainment”-driven audiences. After critiquing the NMAAHC’s aesthetics, Kennicott boldly claims that the NMAAHC has “arrived too late to have the dignity and serenity of museums from which African Americans were excluded in the last century.” This is a disturbing statement, and one that fundamentally misunderstands what the NMAAHC is trying to do. Concerns about the museum’s aesthetics and overreliance on technology, among other potential shortcomings, certainly have their place, but we should also remember that these are issues that can be corrected or modified. Exhibits may be redesigned, and important topics that might have been initially overlooked can be introduced. It is much harder (though not impossible) for a museum to shift its overall mission and vision—intangible ideals that should be reflected and upheld by an institution’s artifacts, exhibits, and educational programs. In the case of the NMAAHC, we can see how the museum appears to sustain the radical tradition that countless smaller African American neighborhood museums began during the last century. Artifacts in the museum that make visitors feel joyful, like Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac or Louis Armstrong’s trumpet,  are necessarily coupled with objects that speak disturbing truths—Emmett Till’s coffin, a protest sign about Trayvon Martin, and iron shackles that could have only been worn by a small child. Contrary to Kennicott’s statement, dignity is inherent in the spaces these artifacts occupy, because they speak to and for a people who so often were rendered invisible and voiceless by centuries of violent discrimination.

The NMAAHC’s founders and supporters also never intended for the museum to function only as a “serene” space. Rather, they fought for a space that would make visitors feel pride in African American history and culture, and that would also acknowledge the prickly dissonance that exists between the promise of American exceptionalism and its reality. As a public historian I hope that the NMAAHC continues to challenge the deceptive serenity of Washington’s hallowed monuments as well as the mentality that results in racist defacement of campus sidewalks or a traffic stop that turns violent. As the ringing of bells during the museum’s opening ceremony reminds us, the NMAAHC intends for all of us to carry on the hard and gloriously cacophonous work of freedom building.

[1] Amanda Cobb, “The National Museum of the American Indian as Cultural Sovereignty,” American Indian Quarterly 57, no. 2 (June 2005): 485-506.