By Mark Di Ionno
Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture has been a 12-year journey, or in Lonnie Bunch’s analogy, a 12-year cruise for the founding director.
“This venture is like going on a cruise at the same time you’re building the ship,” he said.
Building that ship has included fundraising, site and architectural approval, and artifact collecting. A colossal job, for sure.
The next major step will be the museum’s ground-breaking, scheduled for next year. If all goes well, the doors will open in November 2015.
The design was tweaked, then tweaked again, before it was finally given a favorable review by the National Capital Planning Commission, which oversees the National Mall.
The site, too, has been formalized, next door to the National Museum of American History. It will be the closest museum to the Washington Monument and will be across from the White House.
“It is almost sacred ground,” Bunch said. “What better place to tell the sacred story of African-Americans.”
Bunch calls the National Mall “America’s front yard,” and the history of a people once forced to use the back door is taking it rightful place on the front stoop.
“The National Mall is where you come to learn what it means to be an American,” Bunch said.
The museum offices, at the Capital Gallery building on Maryland Avenue SW, are right in middle of it. The east view is dominated by the Capitol building. To the west is the Washington Monument. In between, on the mall, is America’s national collection of art and history.
Building the artifact inventory for the museum has been one of Bunch’s greatest challenges. “It was my biggest worry. Bigger than fundraising,” he said.
The museum staff has put together a series of city tours, called “Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation.”
“It’s like those ‘Antiques Roadshow’ programs on TV,” Bunch said. “We ask people to bring in artifacts they think might have historic value. So much of our 20th-century, and even 19th-century, history is hidden away people’s basements.”
From a private collection in Philadelphia, the museum has acquired two “amazing finds” from the life of Harriet Tubman. One is a white shawl she was famously photographed wearing. The other is her hymnal, containing the songs that were sung to guide slaves along the underground railroad.“You find things like, it takes your breath away,” Bunch said.
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