African American Museum Shares Stark, Moving Story Of a People's History
From slavery to the Million Man March, images and artifacts chronicle 400 years of black Americans' struggles, successes
On first approach, the 80-foot-long slave ship at the center of the world's largest African American history museum, recently opened in Detroit, appears a subtle understatement.Skip to next paragraph
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The abstract vessel, formed by simple rows of black wooden panels, seems to whisper the names of thousands of historic slave ships that are inscribed in fine print on its sides. Only upon closer scrutiny do some of the names - Hope, Assurance, Desire - scream out with irony.
The thick wooden panels also partly obscure the ship's hold. Only by crouching can the visitor gain a full, startling view: 50 tightly packed figures of shackled slaves - young, searching, listless, and so lifelike that they almost breathe.
"This is definitely an eye-opener," says Samilya Young, whose grandmother's family were slaves. "It brings it to life," says Miss Young, one of the more than 50,000 people who have flocked to the new Museum of African American History (MAAH) since it opened last month.
Indeed, the genius of the museum's core exhibit, "Of the People: the African American Experience," is to draw the viewer in and deliver a stark, powerful message. Painful and yet inspiring, it is a message that moves people, says museum president Kimberly Camp.
"Often museums are a numbing experience," Ms. Camp says as she strolls through the museum's airy rotunda dressed in a flowing African tunic. "In the past week here, I've had people crying on my shoulder. If a museum does that," she says, "it doesn't get any better."
Symbol of Detroit renaissance
Many view the unique, $38-million, 120,000-square-foot museum as a long overdue testimonial to both the struggles and achievements of black Americans. Five years in the making, the museum is also the latest symbol of the renaissance of Detroit, a city that is 80 percent black and has long stagnated economically.
The museum seeks to play an aggressive educational role beyond holding exhibits in its three galleries. It boasts a 317-seat theater, three classrooms, a bookstore, and a state-of-the-art research library designed for a broad array of educational programs.
The overarching goal of the museum is to tell the story of African-American history, one that is frequently "omitted" and overlooked, Camp says. The core exhibit achieves this with a sweeping historical overview pinned down by displays of individual accomplishments and cultural contributions that help define what is African-American.
Covering 400 years of black American history, the exhibit contains eight historical "stations" focused on key periods. These range from the journey of West Africans to America known as the middle passage, to the civil rights movement, and into the 1990s.
The exhibit is aided by language that is both clear and empathetic. Often, it is most compelling when it allows the raw history to speak for itself, through images and maps, quotations, laws, and brief statements of events.