Susan Jollie on African American Museum

PRESIDENT SUSAN JOLLIE ATTENDS DIRECTOR’S FORUM ON THE CHALLENGE OF BUILDING THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE

On May 16th, 2006, NWHM President Susan Jollie and NWHM Program Director Holly Kearl attended a Director’s Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where they listened to Lonnie G. Bunch II, the director of the new Smithsonian museum the National Museum of African American History and Culture, speak about the challenges that his organization has faced, is facing, and will face in building a new museum – and she found that the African American Museum’s experiences are in many ways similar to the NWHM’s.

Overview:

The presentation explored the importance of having a National Museum of African American History and Culture and looked at what challenges the museum is facing.  The presentation was of interest to the staff of the National Women’s History Museum because the African American museum has faced and is facing similar challenges to what NWHM is facing or will be facing once legislation is approved.

Brief timeline of their activities since the legislation passed:

December 19, 2003: President Bush signed into law legislation establishing the museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum’s collections will cover topics as varied as slavery, post-Civil War Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement.

Feb. 8, 2005:  The founding Council of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture held its first meeting. The 11 members in attendance adopted bylaws and discussed collections for the museum.

March 2005: Lonnie G. Bunch III was named the director of the museum in March 2005

September 2005: Kinshasha Holman Conwill was appointed deputy director of the museum

January 2006: A museum site was picked at the corner of 14th, 15th, and Constitution Ave.

Opening Remarks:

At the Director’s Forum, Lonnie Bunch opened by talking about some of his experiences conceptualizing the museum and emphasized the phrase that he continually returned to – remembering and acknowledging the African American experience.  He discussed how the museum has been a long time in coming with the first movement towards a national memorial to African Americans occurring in 1913 at the 50-year reunion of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.  At that time, African Americans wanted to create a memorial to commemorate the African American Civil War soldiers.  The idea fizzled away and over the next eighty years at various times people called for a national place to remember African Americans and celebrate their experiences but each time the plans fell through.  Finally in 2003, with a strong champion in Congress, the Congress approved legislation for a museum and President Bush signed the legislation into law.

Reasons why their legislation passed now & not earlier:

1) There was bipartisan support for the museum in Congress this time.

2) Now there is 40+ years of scholarship that has centralized African American culture in historical scholarship

3) There is a larger group of middle class African Americans who are willing to give money to a museum.

Why there is a need for a National African American Museum:

1) To avoid the danger of being forgotten or overlooked by other history museums

2) To show the centrality of slavery to American history – historians and scholars wrestle with issues of slavery but there are few places for the public to wrestle with it and most people don’t realize how central slavery has been to American history because it’s not a narrative that is often told

3) To examine how global/international issues influence race in the U.S.

4) To provide a link for collaboration between local African American museums and centers around the nation and help create more of a community.

Challenges:

1) One of the biggest challenges Bunch said he and the other staff are facing is intellectually deciding what does “national” mean?  What story line is going to be told?  What is the over-arching framework?  He said that the obvious story lines will be slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights Movement, but then which more specific issues do they look at, such as African Americans in the arts, African American athletes, and the tough issue of lynching?  He acknowledged a tension between what the public will want to see/learn and what it needs to see/learn.

2) In addition to crafting a museum to share stories about African American history, a challenge will be exploring and telling what it means to be an African American today.

3) Fundraising is a third crucial challenge.  According to its legislation, the museum must raise $500 million from private funds.

4) The museum staff must grow annually in order to have enough staff to do the work of a growing museum

5) The museum must continue to work with Congress to ensure their continued support

6) Building up the collection for the museum and finding the right items to go with the museum’s themes and story lines.  If they used all of the items the Smithsonian already has, it would only fill 20% of the museum; so finding the other 80% will be a challenge.  They are joining with the national “save our culture” campaign to encourage people to donate items from their private collection to the museum.

7) Actually building the museum.  The regulatory issues alone may take a year to go through and then they have to pick an architect.  A challenge will be ensuring that there is a good and fair process in picking an architect and then that the building plan is stellar looking yet one that gives plenty of exhibit space.

8) Keeping people (staff, media, and public) interested in the museum during the long process before it can open.  They don’t want to burn people out and want to keep them excited about the museum.

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NWHM is facing or will face nearly all of the same problems.
1) In 1998, a coalition of scholars came together and developed four overall themes of women’s history for the NWHM

2) Women’s experiences have been varied throughout America’s history and continue to be varied – so a challenge will be trying to represent as many different experiences as possible.

3) NWHM has stipulated in its legislation that it will raise all of the money for the museum through private funds, so fundraising will be a huge challenge once the legislation passes

4) Once the legislation passes, the NWHM staff will also have to keep growing to keep pace with the growing workload that will be involved in building a museum

5) NWHM must keep working with Congress to have its legislation passed now and once it is passed, will also have to keep working with them to ensure their continued support

6) Once NWHM has a building site, it too can borrow items from the Smithsonian collection, however there will likely be a significant amount of solicitation from the public as well as from the NWHM coalition member organizations.

7) While NWHM’s chosen site already exists as a building, significant construction work will need to be done to turn the inside into a working museum

8) Even before obtaining a permanent museum site, NWHM has to focus on spreading the word about the organization and then also maintain an interest in the campaign. This effort will surely continue after the procurement of the building site.

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