Monday, September 04, 2017

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

In terms of architecture and its breadth of history plus culture, it is a location filled with excellence and beauty. It has been visited by thousands and millions of people worldwide. It has been the dream of our ancestors. It has been planned since the early 20th century and now the National Museum of African American History and Culture has been opened to the general public on September 24, 2016.  This museum is not just an ordinary museum. It is a museum that is a tribute to the courage, strength, beauty, excellence, and perseverance of African Americans. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is part of a Smithsonian Institution, but black people have led the way in creating it. It was designed by many people in a collaborative effort like Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, and Davis Brody Bond. It is located very close to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It has over 30,000 objects that relates to black history and black culture (from the arts, family, civil rights, slavery, segregation, Black Power, community, and the modern age). Today, the Director of the museum is Lonnie Bunch and the Curator is Jacquelyn Serwer. In order to get an understanding about the historic museum, we have to comprehend information about how the National Museum of African American History and Culture was created in its history. As early as 1915, African American veterans of the Union Army met at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. These human beings suffered discrimination. They formed a committee to build a memorial to various African American achievements.

By 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, and 10 other human beings to a commission charged with building a "National Memorial Building" showcasing African-American achievements in the arts and sciences. Yet, back then, Congress didn’t support the project. Private fundraising wasn’t enough. By the 1970’s, a movement started to promote a national museum again. In 1981, Congress approved a federal charter for a National African-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio. It was built and funded by private money. It was opened in 1987. Tom Mack promoted economic development and education in the black community. He was the chairman of the tourist bus company named Tourmobile. He created the NCEED or the National Council of Education and Economic Development. Mack used the NCEED as a way to promote a national African American museum in Washington, D.C. in 1985. He won federal support. He worked with Representative Mickey Leland to sponsor a non-binding resolution (H.R. 666) advocating an African-American museum on the National Mall, which passed the House of Representatives in 1986. The congressional attention motivated the Smithsonian to improve its presentation of African-American history. In 1987, the National Museum of American History sponsored a major exhibit, "Field to Factory," which focused on the black diaspora out of the Deep South in the 1950's. Mack spent his life to promote such a museum. This plan wasn’t without opposition. Some from the African American Museum Association (AAMA) felt that the museum would strip money from local black museums and end jobs that were went for those in local and state black museums. Kinard and the AAMA wanted money from Congress to fund local black history museums in solving problems.  Some questioned whether the Smithsonian should be part of an effort of a national African American museum in the first place. Some wanted total independence. By 1988, Rep. John R. Lewis and Rep. Leland (both are African Americans) introduced legislation for a stand-alone national African American history museum within the Smithsonian Institution. It faced opposition. It was opposed because of its cost. Some wanted a compromise, but it failed during that time. Lewis and Leland introduced another bill in 1989. It failed again, but the Smithsonian institution supported such a museum. Leland died in 1989. By 1991, after debate, the Smithsonian support a national museum dedicated to African American history and culture (via a vote from its Board of Regents). There are funding issues and disputes of a location during the 1990’s. Some Smithsonian members backtracked. This was criticized by Mary Campbell Schmidt, saw this as a step backward, a characterization Smithsonian officials strongly disputed. During the 1990's, other cities had new African American great museums. The city of Detroit opened a $38.4 million, 120,000-square-foot (11,000 m2) Museum of African-American History in 1997, and the city of Cincinnati was raising funds for a $90 million, 157,000-square-foot (14,600 m2) National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (which broke ground in 2002).

By 2001, John Lewis and Representative J. C. Watts re-introduced legislation for a museum in the House. There was a new leader and Secretary Lawrence Small of the Smithsonian Board of Regents. Small wanted a stand-alone national museum detailing African American history. The Smithsonian asked Congress for a study which was federally funded. Congress agreed. President George W. Bush was one of the leading supporters of this project. On December 29, 2001, President George W. Bush signed legislation establishing a 23-member commission to study the need for a museum, how to raise the funds to build and support it, and where it should be located. At the signing ceremony, the president expressed his opinion that the museum should be located on the National Mall. The study concluded that the museum was a necessity and it must be constructed. The National Museum of African American History and Culture Council (the museum's board of trustees) sponsored a competition in 2008 to design a 350,000-square-foot (33,000 m2) building with three stories below-ground and five stories above-ground. The building was limited to the 5-acre (20,000 m2) site chosen by the site selection committee, had to be LEED Gold certified, and had to meet stringent federal security standards. The cost of construction was limited to $500 million ($556,182,380 in 2016 dollars). The design submitted by the Freelon Group/Adjaye Associates/Davis Brody Bond won the design competition. The above-ground floors featured an inverted step pyramid surrounded by a bronze architectural scrim, which reflected a crown used in Yoruban culture. The government approved the plan.  Added to the entrance on Constitution Avenue were a pond, garden, and bridge, so that visitors would have to "cross over the water" like slaves did when they came to America against their wills. Oprah Winfrey on June 10, 2013 donated $12 million to the NMAAHC. She donated $1 million to the museum in 2007. The Smithsonian said it would name the NMAAHC's 350-seat theater after her. The GM Foundation announced a $1 million donation to the museum on January 22, 2014, to fund construction of the building and design and install permanent exhibits.

The groundbreaking took place on February 22, 2012. President Barack Obama and museum director Bunch were among the speakers at the ceremony. Actress Phylicia Rashad was the Master of Ceremonies for the event. Poetry and music was performed by Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson, and the Heritage Signature Chorale. Clark Construction Group, Smoot Construction, and H.J. Russell & Company won the contract to build the museum. The architectural firm of McKissack & McKissack (which was the first African American-owned architectural firm in the United States) provided project management services on behalf of the Smithsonian, and acted as liaison between the Smithsonian and public utilities and D.C. government agencies. A worker was severely injured at the construction site on June 3, 2015, when scaffolding on the roof collapsed on top of him. 35-year-old Ivan Smyntyna was rushed to a local hospital, where he later died. The 350,000 square feet (33,000 m2) building has a total of 10 stories (five above and five below ground). The construction was done in a serious fashion. Commemorative copies of the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation were sent to the museum. The grand opening of the National Museum of African American history and Culture existed on September 24, 2016. President Barack Obama opened the new museum along with four generations of the Bonner family (from 99 year old Ruth Bonner, who is the daughter of Elijah B. Odom of Mississippi, an escaped slave down to Ruth’s great granddaughter Christine). I saw the opening ceremony on television too. The Obamas and Ruth along with her family rang the historic bell to officially open the museum. The bell was from the first Baptist church organized by and for African Americans (which was founded in Williamsburg, Virginia. Back then laws made it unlawful for black people to congregate or preach. Now, things are different). The museum is extremely popular today. In its first three months alone, more than 600,000 people visited the museum. In November 2016, NBA player LeBron James donated $2.5 million to support the museum's exhibit on the accomplishments of boxer Muhammad Ali. All visitors must have a ticket to enter. After six months, about 1.2 million people visited the NMAAHC. It is now one of the four most visited Smithsonian museums. Patrons spend an average of six hours at the museum, which was twice as long as had been estimated before the museum’s opening. In 2007, the NMAAHC became the first major museum to open on the Web before completing a physical structure.

The web site included the museum's first exhibit, mounted in New York City. The site was also designed to encourage collaboration between scholars and the public. The main feature of the web-based initiative was the Memory Book application, which allowed individuals to contribute to the web site pictures, a story, or an audio application to spotlight unique experiences in African-American culture. Collections number in the thousands.  Renée Anderson, the NMAAHC's head of collections, oversaw the effort.  The museum has items owned by Harriet Tubman, the sunken slave ship from the Sao Jose Paquete Africa (it was evacuated from the coast of South Africa), the jacket and skirt worn by Marian Anderson at her 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert, a Tuskegee Airman flight jacket, and photographs from hip hop artists are found in the museum too. There is also a letter by Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution slave revolt in 1791. There is the Sweet home Café, which is a 400 seat luncheon only restaurant. Jerome Grant is the executive chef, and the restaurant is managed by Restaurant Associates in association with Thompson Hospitality. Joanne Hyppolite, NMAAHC curator for cultural expressions, oversees the restaurant as well as the museum's exhibits on food ways and cuisine. The cafeteria opened on September 24, 2016. It was named a 2017 semifinalist by the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. People from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal have praised the museum. The National Museum of African American History and Culture outlines the representation of black life in concrete, great terms. It inspires us, speaks to us, and motivates us in this long journey for human justice. We, as black people, still rise.

By Timothy

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