The Thorny Path to a National Black Museum

In the late 1970s, when Lonnie G. Bunch III had his first job at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, veterans of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black squadron, accused the museum of playing down their contributions during World War II. In response, the museum asked some of the African-Americans on staff to allow their faces to be used on mannequins, increasing the “black presence” in its exhibits.

“I didn’t do it,” Mr. Bunch said recently, who was among those asked. “That’s not the way I wanted to be part of a museum.”

Thirty years later Mr. Bunch, and African-American history itself, are part of a Smithsonian museum, but in a very different way. As the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mr. Bunch, 58, is charged with creating an institution that embodies the story of black life in America.

The pressure couldn’t be greater. To open in 2015, in a $500 million building designed to evoke the art of an ancient West African kingdom, the museum will stand at the geographic center of American civic identity, on the National Mall.
Since Mr. Bunch was appointed in 2005 — two years after the museum was created by an act of Congress — he and his staff have been racing at full speed, commissioning the building, amassing a collection, reaching out to potential donors and future visitors. But as their deadline approaches, and grand dreams have to be refined into gallery layouts and exhibition plans, they are not only juggling details and a $250 million fund-raising campaign, but also grappling with fundamental questions about the museum’s soul and message.

Among the biggest, of course, is: What story will it tell? As part of the Smithsonian, the museum bears the burden of being the “official” — that is, the government’s — version of black history, but it will also carry the hopes and aspirations of African-Americans. Will its tale be primarily one of pain, focused on America’s history of slavery and racial oppression, and memorializing black suffering? Or will it emphasize the uplifting part of the story, highlighting the richness of African-American culture, celebrating the bravery of civil rights heroes and documenting black “firsts” in fields like music, art, science and sports? Will the story end with the country’s having overcome its shameful history and approaching a state of racial harmony and equality? Or will the museum argue that the legacy of racism is still dominant — and, if so, how will it make that case?

Addressing a topic as fraught as race would be challenging anywhere, but it is particularly tricky within the Smithsonian, a complex of 19 museums that last year got $761 million from Congress. Efforts to tackle difficult topics often become politicized, torn between historians’ desire to treat issues with scholarly detachment and an expectation that the Smithsonian’s role is to honor the nation’s past.

The Air and Space Museum, for example, repeatedly ran into controversy over exhibits of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Meanwhile, the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, has been criticized as being overly reverential and lacking in historical perspective, because it presents its story primarily from an American Indian point of view.

That leads to perhaps the biggest question: Whatever story the museum decides to tell, who will be listening? Most of the African-American museums around the country were originally aimed at a primarily black audience, to teach them about their history and instill pride in their forebears’ resilience and hard-fought battles for freedom. The new institution’s role is different, and not only because African-American history is no longer a neglected field.

“This is not being built as a museum by African-Americans for African-Americans,” Mr. Bunch said, setting it apart from the museums that have sprung up to celebrate the achievements of various ethnic groups. “The notion that is so important here is that African-American culture is used as a lens to understand what it means to be an American.”

Every topic — the role of African-Americans in the military, or the fight for access to public education in the South — will be examined for how it affected society as a whole, and what it says about America’s evolving definitions of citizenship and equality.

The goal is “to make sure people see this is not an ancillary story, but it’s really the central story of the American experience,” Mr. Bunch said. (The fact that it will be a separate museum, next door to the National Museum of American History, might seem to complicate that message, but Mr. Bunch doesn’t seem bothered by that.)

But even with the country’s first African-American president in office, the topic of race remains a flashpoint in the national conversation, making the project even more complex.