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Soon-to-Rise African-American History Museum Claims Spot on Nation's Largest Symbolic Stage

January 24, 2012 — The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is the focus of attention when it comes to telling the story of America – its history, accomplishments and the seat of our national government. That story soon will be expanded with a new chapter: a museum telling the story of African-Americans, their accomplishments and contributions.

University of Virginia and community members gathered Monday at the School of Architecture to celebrate the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

An afternoon symposium, "Re-Imagining the Public Realm: The Design of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture," and an evening lecture, "Current Museum Projects," given by the museum's architect, Philip Freelon, were part of U.Va.'s celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

The symposium, organized by Department of Architecture faculty member Craig Barton, American Studies Program, Corcoran Department of History professor Grace Hale, and graduate architecture student Lauren Begen, featured experts from the National Planning Commission, the Smithsonian Institution and scholars from U.Va. and other institutions.

In her introduction, College of Arts & Sciences Dean Meredith Jung-En Woo said, "By helping Americans remember, it will stimulate discussion about race and reconciliation."

Speaking from multi-disciplinary perspectives, the participants discussed the history of the idea, the politics and the design of the museum, which will break ground next month, with a scheduled opening in 2015.

U.Va. alumna Mabel Wilson, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, said there is a growing list of African-American museums around the country, each celebrating some part of the story. But the National Museum of African American History and Culture, with its location on the National Mall in Washington, is the "most significant endeavor," she said.

"What does it mean for black Americans to claim a physical space in the nation's symbolic landscape?" she asked rhetorically. "What does it mean for black Americans to claim a physical space in the historical landscape?"

Following a long history of failed grassroots efforts – and later segregated museums and expositions where African-Americans took "measure of their own advancement and witnessed their progress as a race in the nation," with themes of racial uplift and a rallying cry for racial equality – the Smithsonian museum "will help all America remember," Wilson said.

U.Va. associate professor of history Claudrena Harold said museums have an ideological  role. The new museum is not just about confirming the past, but a space "to think about a new reality" in relation to the American democratic project.

Faith Davis Ruffins, curator at the National Museum of American History, praised the museum's siting on the National Mall, which she described as "a crucially symbolic space that is on the world stage. National and global attention will be paid to African-American history and culture. "

She said the curator of the African-American museum, Lonnie Bunch III, has already secured, through fairs held around the country and from donors, more than 25,000 objects  "It's a significant number, but there are a lot more," she said.

Whether it's small items that belonged to abolitionist Harriet Tubman or the cockpit of a World War II plane flown by a Tuskegee airman – a symbol of one of the firsts in opening the armed forces to African-Americans – having and displaying the "real thing" is important. Objects have a powerful associational value in a historical context and the personal associations that people bring from their own lives, Ruffins said.

In one example, the museum recently acquired the historic "mother ship" that would descend on stage at the start of performances by funk, soul and rock group Parliament-Funkadelic, to be displayed as part of the museum's planned cultural display.

Plans also call for the inclusion of African-American art. Carmenita Higginbotham, an art historian in the College who specializes in American art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said she was struck by the desire to have art in the new museum. She said all items are of equal value in constructing a national narrative.

Museums, both local and national, create "debates about identity," she said.

African-Americans' search for identity and a museum to tell their story has been going on, with fits and starts in both the private and public spheres, for almost a century, said Ken Walton, project manager for the National Capital Planning Commission. Funds were being raised through grassroots efforts as early as 1915 and a variety of sites were considered, including Howard University. President George W. Bush signed House Resolution 3491, the bill establishing the museum, in 2003.

Marcel Acosta, executive director of the commission, said the demand for space on the National Mall is great. Everyone wanting to erect a monument or museum is concerned with the age-old real estate refrain that it's all about "location, location, location."

Acosta and his office worked with the architect to balance the museum's design to respect its setting near the Washington Monument.

U.Va. architecture professor Maurice Cox, one of the jury members for the Smithsonian's design competition, gave a behind-the-scenes view of how the architectural team of Freelon Adjaye Bond and SmithGroup was selected. He said questions about who will tell the story of the African-American experience and how the story will be told were of paramount concern. Cox said Freelon and his team demonstrated how the architecture itself could play a significant role in telling the story.

Freelon spoke at the symposium and also at the evening lecture. His firm, Freelon Group, has been involved in six African-American museum projects across the country, working closely with exhibit and graphic designers to tell their unique stories. He said the experiences provided a strong basis for designing a museum that would tell the national story of the African-American experience.

The design is based on the corona or crown, taken from West African architectural tradition. The idea of the porch in the design, rooted in African-American and Southern culture, acts as a porch on which to sit and take in Mall views, but also provides shelter as an overhang, and in combination with an adjacent pool, offers a place to enjoy cooling summer breezes. 

The pool and other water features in the landscape design reference not only the journey of slaves across the ocean, but also are symbols of spirituality, cleansing and calming, Freelon said.

The use of light in the building plays on African-American iconography as well. An oculus provides light to below-ground exhibit areas and recalls the lights placed in windows to signify a safe haven to travelers on the Underground Railroad. The light-permeable bronze grille work that will clad the building celebrates the iron gates found in New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., many crafted by African-Americans.

With the idea that the museum and the history it will celebrate is part of the larger story of American democracy, the grille work is punctuated by windows that provide views to the White House, Capitol, Jefferson Monument and other American iconographic symbols.

The building and exhibits tell the truth about slavery and other struggles, but also celebrate African-American history and culture, Freelon said.

— By Jane Ford

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