National Museum of African American History and Culture opens: Why now?

The Smithsonian Institution's new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday, more than 100 years after the idea was first proposed. 

Susan Walsh/AP
An exhibit featuring activism is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, during a press preview.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open Saturday, more than 100 years after the idea was first suggested. 

The museum, owned by the Smithsonian Institution and located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., will feature relics ranging from ballast bars found aboard a Portuguese slave ship that sunk in 1794 to the Chicago Bulls jersey worn by Michael Jordan during the 1996-1997 season playoffs. 

But though many of the display themes revolve around bygone eras, such as "Slavery and Freedom" or "Era of Segregation," the museum's opening comes "at a time when social and political discord remind us that racism is not ... a thing of the past," said Smithsonian Institution Secretary David Skorton to reporters at a media preview this week, as reported by the Baltimore Sun. 

The idea for an African American museum was first suggested in 1915 by black Civil War veterans, Mr. Skorton said. President Herbert Hoover appointed a commission to put together a plan in 1929, but the efforts quickly lost momentum because of a lack of funding. 

In 1988 the idea resurfaced, when a bill to fund an African-American museum was introduced in Congress. But the bill faced opposition from some conservative lawmakers, who argued that the museum would be a waste of taxpayer dollars, as well as regional African American museums who worried that a national museum would put them out of business. It wasn't until 2003 that the legislation passed. 

Despite the century-long journey leading up to its opening, the museum's founders say the institution is just as relevant as ever.

"Race is the last great unmentionable in many ways: We talk about it, but we don’t talk about it," Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum, told David Karas, reporting for The Christian Science Monitor last month. "The Smithsonian is this amazing place where people will grapple with issues and ideas that they won't in other places.... Because it is the Smithsonian, we have the chance to be one of the greatest educational opportunities in America to help Americans grapple with what has divided them." 

But with that great opportunity comes challenges, particularly when it came to determining which parts of history would and would not be included. 

"It’s the most expensive, biggest museum devoted to people of African descent anywhere in the world, and that makes things complicated," Samuel Black, the past president of the Association of African American Museums, told the Los Angeles Times. "You can't cover everything of the black experience, and you’re always going to find someone who says something should be there or should not be there." 

The limited amount of space and resources meant that some aspects of African American history are covered less extensively than others – for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, which spurred an ongoing nationwide debate on race and the criminal justice system, is represented only by a few protest photos, a TV clip of an activist appearing with Stephen Colbert, and a T-shirt and poster from protests over the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin. 

But though the contemporary movement may not play a prominent role in the museum, Mr. Bunch and Skorton hope the history on display will help Americans deal with present-day and future issues of race along with acknowledging the past. 

"This museum can help advance the public conversation," Skorton said. "You can actually see people appear to change, especially young people, as they explore an exhibition and light up with a spark of recognition."

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