Walking into the National Museum of African American History and Culture in November 2015, the visitor will see a segregated railroad car, the hard and fast practice in the South until the 1960s.
The museum could use the car to tell the story of the legal battle to desegregate interstate travel and the bravery of the Freedom Riders. Or it might step further back and show how the train, no matter how horrid its conditions, took black Southerners to the North and a promise of freedom. Or it could tell about the significance of the Pullman porters, black men who held coveted jobs, no matter what hostility they faced on their routes.
None of the specific stories the museum will tell are yet set in stone, though design teams are working on the scope and personalization of several broad themes.
How the stories — under the umbrellas of history, culture and community — are organized is the next big task. And underlying that is a challenge for the founders to bring the emotions they invested in the project to the understandable language of exhibit captions.
“As we have been working with the curatorial teams, several themes have come forward. One has to do with the persistence of hope, strength and spirituality. It comes down to understand core values of resilience and improvisation,” said Melanie Ide, project director for Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the prize-winning exhibition planning and design firm working with the museum. The firm did the riveting rooms at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Paul Gardullo, one of the museum’s curators, is thinking about how to express the concept of place, from anonymous corners to well-documented locations such as New Orleans’s Congo Square.
“Another notion is making a way out of no way,” said Gardullo. “It is a core theme integral to the African American experience but one that can be picked up on from many different angles.”
Other questions: how to tell about Washington, with its powerful story of freed blacks, slave markets, black artisans building the U.S. Capitol and White House, the employment of blacks in all levels of government, the historic churches, the educational and cultural nucleus of Howard University, the medical history of Howard University Hospital, the legacy of U Street, the homes where Frederick Douglass and Georgia Douglas Johnson lived, the rise of self-government, and the influx of businesspeople from all parts of the diaspora.
The museum has been diligently raising the curtain on its approach with a series of exhibitions at the National Museum of American History. The Scurlock Studio, a photography business in Washington for more than 50 years, was the subject of an early show.
“For All the World to See,” a look at the images from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, was based on the collection of the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at UMBC. A current exhibition on slave life at Monticello is a partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
After the groundbreaking, the design team expects additional donations to the collection.