New Washington, D.C. Museum Recounts African American History

Photo Credit: Marc Gronich

NMAAHC director, Lonnie Bunch, in conversation with scholar Harold Holzer, after Bunch accepted the Empire State Archives and History Award.

 Jews & Blacks Connect Through Common Experience of Slavery

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There has been a strong bond between Blacks and Jews dating back centuries. The bond that ties us together is enslavement. Jews have been enslaved since the early days of civilization, as we read in the Torah and the Haggadah on Passover. Blacks were enslaved in Africa and America for centuries.

That connection is why Jews need to see the National Museum of African American History and Culture, NMAAHC, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Opening Day for the museum was on Shabbos, September 24, 2016, followed by a week of special events.

“Jews were enslaved and it is a very deeply moving experience to see the story of enslavement of any people for any length of time,” Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and board member of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust, told The Jewish Press. “[We have] a common background in servitude, and [it is] everyone’s responsibility to understand it and to get us past it. Throughout the 1930s, forties and fifties, you see the partnership for equality, a common cause for Blacks and Jews, particularly in the marches of the South, when celebrities and a whole rainbow of people with different backgrounds marched together with Dr. [Martin Luther] King, Whitney Young and other people, so that is very much in evidence in this [museum].”

It is certainly not easy building a museum from the ground up, as a concept.

“By building that collection, we can tell the stories we want,” recalled the museum’s first director, Lonnie Bunch. “There was a real debate as to whether we could ever find collections. Should we build a museum with collections? I realized at the Smithsonian people come to see the ruby slippers (from the Wizard of Oz) and the Greensboro lunch counter. You can’t not have good stuff. Even though there were real debates about ‘why bother,’ the fact that we were able to find 40,000 objects really helped the museum become something special.”

On Tuesday, November 1, Bunch, 69, traveled to Albany to receive the Empire State Archives and History Award. He then sat down on stage with Holzer for an hour-long conversation about the struggles of building the museum and how that led to his current position as the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Born in Newark, New Jersey, he is the first non-scientist to lead the Smithsonian. Before being tapped to head the construction of the museum, Bunch was the head of the Chicago Historical Society. His parents were school teachers. His nurturing began at home.

“It was the power of education. Every night they talked about something different. My father was a chemist, so he would talk about science. My mother would ask me to read poetry,” Bunch recalled. “There was this real desire to learn.”

The unique design of the building stands out among all the square-designed office buildings and museums on the National Mall.

“The museum is an architectural marvel,” Holzer said. “People think it is an inversion of a slave ship. You are asked to go down and start your museum experience at the lowest level, which is like being in the hull, and seeing artifacts of the passage of slavery and then work your way up to the civil rights movement and into the modern age.”

The total cost of the museum’s design, construction, and installation of exhibits was $540 million (over $600 million in 2021 dollars). By the time the museum’s founding fundraising campaign had ended, the NMAAHC had raised $386 million (over $435 million in 2021 dollars), 143 percent more than its goal of $270 million but $154 million short of its overall goal.

Major financial contributors included Vista Equity Partners; Microsoft; Google; David Rubenstein, CEO of The Carlyle Group and a Smithsonian regent; basketball star LeBron James; and Wells Fargo, among many others. The largest gift, $21 million, came from movie icon and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey.

“Thinking about building that museum, it was really about figuring out that if we were going to honor our ancestors, what I was going to have to do was learn how to make a way out of no way,” Bunch said. “That sense of believing that we could get good people and work with gifted scholars to actually craft a museum that matters, is what got me to say yes. Nobody was ready for this.

“When we wanted to get a building on the mall there were several criteria. I wanted it to be the first green museum on the mall. I wanted sustainability to be at the heart of the museum. The reality is, the goal was to say we will create a building that did two things. If you see the building, you see the building has what we call a corona, a bronze corona. That corona is really part of what makes it green,” Bunch revealed. “Coming from Chicago, I realized architecture is crucial to the identity of a city. In D.C. most of the architecture was monumental (a pun on all the richly-deserved monuments scattered throughout the mall.) So, I wanted something really impressive. I said I would like the building to speak of spirituality, resiliency and uplift.”

Figuring out the broad structure of the museum was a worldwide adventure for Bunch.

“After looking around the world at museums, there was no model for what we wanted to do. We ended up saying this has to be a museum that is more than a museum. It has to be a place that is transformative,” Bunch said. “It has to be a place that says the National Mall is where the world comes to understand what it’s like to be an American. I really thought that this story was too important not to be on the mall, and if it wasn’t going to be on the mall then I would have to walk away. It was that important.”

While Congress authorized the building of the museum, there was no money tied to the project. Bunch amassed more than 40,000 donated items from around the world. It took Bunch 11 years to bring the museum to fruition.

“One thing Lonnie did was put some of these early acquisitions online and do online exhibitions so people had a substantive appreciation that this is a real museum,” Holzer said. “This is not just a concept. That was an early ingenious use of the Internet.”

Bunch speaks about a man from Philadelphia who had a rare collection of Harriet Tubman memorabilia. The man invited Bunch to come to Philadelphia to see the artifacts for himself.

“I finally said to him, I got no money,” Bunch recalled. “What’s this going to take for this to come to the Smithsonian? He said, ‘Shake my hand.’ That notion of generosity, of people saying ‘shake my hand and you can have these collections,’ is really what led us to build the museum. We found 40,000 artifacts, of which 70 percent were in people’s basements, trunks and attics. For me, it was tapping into what was really already there. This great interest in preserving cultural patrimony and sharing your stories. Because we collected it all, we had the stories. There weren’t things like, ‘What was that about?’ We had people tell us what that was about…. It was about people being really generous.”

As the collection grew, so did Bunch’s desire to secure items that were grander. The idea of how to display the history of slavery was tossed around by the staff and Bunch at various meetings.

“What I did was, I went to Charleston and New Orleans, took pictures of the iron work that enslaved people did and that’s what is over the entire building,” Bunch said. “It’s a way to pay homage to so many people who built America that we’ll never know. The surveys we did were basically very interesting. The number one thing people did not want to know about was slavery. At the same time, the number one thing they wanted to know about was slavery. It struck me that we needed to embed this by going through the experience of slavery. As you mentioned, one of the things we do is, I was fixated on getting remnants of a slave ship. I don’t want a Disney recreation, I wanted relics that people would get excited about.”

So, Bunch and his team set out on a mission to locate a slave ship.

“One of my students said I think we might have found a slave ship that sank off the coast of Cape Town [South Africa]. We did the research, we dove in, and we found out it was a Portuguese ship that had left Lisbon, went to Mozambique, and was on its way to the New World when it sank.

“We found these remnants,” Bunch recalled. “I decided that we needed to go to Mozambique and pay homage to the Makua tribe, which were the people who were on the boat. There were 512 people taken and when the boat sank half of the cargo was lost and the other half was sold the next day. I went back to the Makua people, where the chief greeted me and he said I have a gift for you. He gave me a vessel that was wrapped with Cowrie shells. When I opened it, it was just dirt. The chief said to me that his ancestors had demanded that I take the soil back to Cape Town and sprinkle the soil over the side of the wreck, so for the first time since 1794 my people can sleep in their own land. To me that is what made this whole adventure special. We realized that this wasn’t about yesterday. It was about today and tomorrow.”

Like any great historian, Bunch also wanted to tell the stories some people may not want to learn about.

“To me, that was what was most hopeful about the museum, that it could tell difficult stories, it could illuminate the dark corners of history, but it could do it in a way that allows us to find meaning, understanding, and maybe a little hope,” Bunch said. “That’s why I thought we had to be more than just a museum. It had to be a place of possibility that would help us understand who we once were, broadly contextualize who we are today but broadly point us to a better shared future.”

Then there were the museum donations that Bunch was reluctant to accept, like an automobile from Chuck Berry.

“I wasn’t going to put the car on display,” Bunch recalled. “It’s probably the number three item that people want to have their picture taken in front of, a 1972 candy-apple red Cadillac. Who knew? Number One is a segregated railroad car that people love to have their picture taken in front of. The second most popular item people like having their picture taken in front of is Michael Jordan’s [basketball] jersey.”

On March 27, the museum drew criticism for agreeing to include a small number of items from the career of actor/comedian Bill Cosby in a planned exhibit about African Americans in the entertainment industry. Women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault objected to the display. In response to the resulting controversy, the museum added the following sentence to its description of Cosby’s career: “In recent years, revelations about alleged sexual misconduct have cast a shadow over Cosby’s entertainment career and severely damaged his reputation.”

As the director of the Smithsonian, Bunch oversees 19 museums, 21 libraries, and The National Zoo. Two additional museums that are about to be birthed.

“One of the museums is the National Women’s Museum. One congressman had a block on it for five years,” Holzer revealed. “The other one is the Latino Heritage and History Museum.”

“It took me 11 years to build the African American Museum of History and Culture. Now they want me to build another two. Well, they won’t get me for another 11,” Bunch said. “One is not too far from the African American museum and the other is near the Tidal Basin and will replace a rugby field. The key, though, is that Congress is going to have to pass some legislation to make this happen. I think that my notion is that we have chosen two optimal sites, for two important museums that will enrich our understanding of who we are as Americans. My goal is to use the proverbial lame-duck session to get it through. That’s my goal. If you hear about it being done by January 1, I pulled it off. If you don’t hear about it, it’s Congress’s fault.”

State Education Commissioner Dr. Betty Rosa was one of those hanging on every word Bunch and Holzer were presenting to the audience of about 150 people.

“What an amazing storyteller. He really, truly took me on a journey. Not just a personal journey but a journey of the work, the connection to history, the connection to bringing all of these artifacts to life,” Rosa told The Jewish Press. “Just the way he brought the artifacts into the museum and the way he told the story, personalizing it. The richness of his finds and the richness of his journey were just phenomenal.”

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