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National museum explores African American history

An inaugural exhibit at the new National Museum

An inaugural exhibit at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture's covers slavery and freedom is seen here. Credit: AP / Bill Clark

The National African American Museum of History and Culture will formally open its doors to the public next weekend amid three days of festivities as it welcomes the nation to explore the black experience on these shores.

That exploration spanning hundreds of years includes slavery to emancipation; Reconstruction to legally sanctioned segregation; the civil rights struggles of the 20th century; and 21st century concerns exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, declared in a mission statement emblazoned on its website that it “will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.”

The 400,000-square-foot museum, situated on 5 acres adjacent to the Washington Monument, has been long in the making.

According to a museum timeline, President George W. Bush signed legislation in 2003 creating the museum. But officials said efforts to build it began more than 100 years ago — a journey chronicled in an exhibit titled “A Century in the Making.”

Eleven more inaugural exhibits cover slavery and freedom, the “Era of Segregation, 1876-1968” and “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” There are stories on migration; blacks’ role in the military; the story of African-American music “from the arrival of the first Africans to today’s hip-hop.” Displays on sports look at the contributions of athletes “on and off the field.”

“Because sports were among the first and most high-profile organizations to accept African Americans on relative terms of equality, sports have a unique role in American culture,” a museum fact sheet explains.

Among the artifacts on display highlighted by the museum are:

  • A slave cabin from the early 1800s used at the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina.
  • A segregation-era Southern Railway car, circa 1920.
  • A Tuskegee Airplane, Boeing-Stearman PT-13D Kaydet, circa 1944, used at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute to train African American pilots for the Army Air Corps during World War II.

The museum is scheduled to open Saturday afternoon to ticketed patrons after a formal outdoor dedication ceremony in the morning, at which President Barack Obama is expected to speak. Tickets are not required to view the ceremony.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, hopes to be among the lucky ones to see the museum’s exhibits on opening day.

“Believe it or not, I’m scrounging for a ticket,” he said Friday, chuckling.

According to media reports, 28,500 timed-entry tickets had been snapped up. A notice Friday on the museum’s website — — said timed-entry passes are available for November and December.

Muhammad, who now is a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the museum “gives the nation what I think is its first opportunity to have an enduring reconciliation with a very complicated past.”

Calling its existence “long overdue,” Muhammad also said he hopes the museum would move “past symbols to a more complicated depiction of the lived experience” of blacks.

As an example, he said, an exhibit of shackles used to bind slaves not only can demonstrate the “horrors of confinement” but “also say something about the business of slavery.” Blacksmiths’ business, he said, “boomed in the 19th century in the wake of the expansion of slavery.”

Muhammad has high hopes for the museum.

“The optimist in me imagines that schoolchildren and adults will encounter this history in ways that should transform the nation, by virtue of understanding the depths of human suffering and the need for constant vigilance about how we see each other.”

The National African American Museum of History and Culture

15th Street NW and Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C.

A three-day festival on the Washington Monument grounds, from Friday through Sunday, celebrates the museum’s opening.

“Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration” will feature musical performances, dance, oral history activities, food and concerts on Saturday night and Sunday night. It is free and open to the public.

The museum’s dedication and opening are Saturday.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at the 10 a.m. outside the museum. Tickets are not required, and large-screen viewing areas will be provided for the public.

The museum will be open Saturday from 1 to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 7 a.m. to midnight. Tickets are required.

Museum facts:

  • 400,000 square feet
  • 3,000 objects on display
  • Total cost, construction and exhibits installation: $540 million, one-half funded by federal funds, the remainder by the Smithsonian Institution
  • Design: The outer layer of the building, the Corona, draws on African and American history, “reaching toward the sky in an expression of faith, hope and resiliency,” according to a museum fact sheet. The pattern on the exterior panels is meant to bring to mind the intricate 19th-century ironwork crafted by those who were enslaved in New Orleans, the museum said.


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