The Challenges of Building a National Museum

The Challenges of Building a National Museum
Deborah Bell enjoys a talk at the British Library by Lonnie G Bunch III, Founding Director of Washington DC’s National Museum of African American History & Culture

You can always tell what and how a nation thinks by what is put and included on the walls of its museums; it shows what a nation forgets and remembers”

During the talk Lonnie explained the challenges involved in founding Washington DC’s extraordinary National Museum of African American History. These included getting the museum built on the Mall (the main strip where other Museums reside); getting sufficient funding from Congress, which had balked at the idea since it was first floated by African-American Civil War veterans in 1915; and creating a museum for everyone based on the idea of what it means to be American, or, as John O Franklin put it ‘to tell the unvarnished truth.’ He was urged by some members of the public not to focus on a history of being enslaved as this would make young people despairing, and not to showcase “what they did to us.”

Lonnie was also faced with the issue of what sort of building to choose. Most museums on the National Mall are white marble, but he wanted something different that would stand out.  Architects including the British Ghanaian David Adjaye led the project design, and Lonnie chose a bronze fret design by New Orleans black craftsmen, which is shaped into the hands of a black women in prayer.

With building plans underway, Lonnie had to consider which artefacts should be included in the museum’s exhibitions. Lonnie says that he got the idea of people checking their houses for historical artefacts from the Antique Roadshow TV Show. As a result, there are now around 40,000 artefacts in store at the museum, 70% of which were found in people’s homes. Artefacts on display include a shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, a letter to the USA from Haiti’s revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture, and Mohammed Ali’s boxing gloves. Lonnie also wanted to include an original slave ship, and a wreck lifted from the South African coast served the purpose.

 Of course capital had to be raised to support a project of this scale, which in the end amounted to $600m. Black millionaires like Oprah Winfrey contributed, while members of the public paid $25.00 membership in  advance of its opening, which alone helped to raise over $30m. Oprah said that she would contribute more for the Museum to be on the Mall rather than off it to give it greater visibility and this sealed the build!

Lonnie had responsibility for the hiring of staff, but he knew what he was looking for. They were expected to be passionate rather than careerists; diversity was critical; and he wanted to hire people who knew more than he did. He tested his choices by observing how they interacted with the public.

According to Lonnie ‘Success (to me) is embedded in the Museum being able to reveal the lives of those who quietly lived, and live’ and he has ensured that the Museum is contextual and relates to contemporary events like Charlottesville and Black Lives Matter.

The Museum has drawn attention to other African American Museums up and down the country since Barack Obama opened it in 2016, and made others raise their game in the inclusion stakes. The success of the museum is reflected in its statistics. It welcomes around 8,000 visitors a day - as opposed to the expected 3,000 - with visitors spending an average of around five to six hours there per visit. 33% have never visited any museums previously, and 45% of visitors are not African-American showing the museum’s ability to reach out to men and women of all backgrounds.