Jefferson, executive director of the California African American Museum, hears about it some way, somehow — then lets Bunch know that she knows.
“I always tease Lonnie: ‘I heard you were coming to California; I’m locking the doors,’ ” Jefferson said. “Or: ‘Uh-oh, I heard you were in town. I thought I felt somebody’s hand in my pocket.’ ”
Behind the good-natured joking, though, there are real anxieties about the impact that the long-dreamed-of National Museum of African American History and Culture might have on smaller institutions that cover some of the same territory.
Even as they’ve celebrated the creation of a massive national museum to tell the once-marginalized story of blacks in America, some executives at African American museums have voiced concerns about competing with a Smithsonian museum for money, artifacts and attention.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled that we will have a museum on the Mall dedicated to this history and culture,” Jefferson said from Los Angeles. “It’s extraordinary.
“At the same time, there’s apprehension and fear amongst many that people won’t support all the other black museums that have existed for so long . . . that everybody will be distracted by the new, bright, shiny museum that’s got all the hype. That is not an outcome that anybody wants.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture isn’t scheduled to open until late 2015, but the excitement surrounding the final Smithsonian outpost on the Mall is building.
Bunch, the museum’s founding director, and his staff have raised about $100 million in private funds and collected roughly 20,000 artifacts for the 374,000-square-foot museum, which has been nearly a century in the making.
It will sit on a five-acre site next to the Washington Monument, in the symbolic heart of American history, a place where blacks have long felt underrepresented. When it opens, the museum is expected to draw between 3 million and 3.5 million visitors each year, Bunch said — attendance that would vault it ahead of all but three of the other Smithsonian museums.
As a federally commissioned institution that will be the largest anywhere to focus on African Americans, it was inevitable that it would cast a long shadow across the U.S. community of black historic sites and museums. There were more than 300 of them in 2008, when the Association of African American Museums last counted, from the 800-square-foot African American Museum of the Arts in DeLand, Fla., to the 125,000-square-foot Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
Bunch, who is sensitive to his peers’ concern, said he began thinking almost immediately about what it would take for the other museums not just to survive but to soar in the Smithsonian’s considerable wake. Two weeks after starting his job in 2005, he made a promise in a speech to the museum association: He would help the other museums, not hurt them.