President Bush yesterday spiritedly endorsed placing a national museum dedicated to black life and culture on the Mall.
"We have a chance to build a fantastic museum, right here in the heart of Washington, D.C., on the Mall," Bush said at a White House event celebrating African American history.
Bush's declaration was then interrupted by sustained applause. He paused and smiled, aware of the passionate and tangled discussions of where the museum should go and what signal a placement off the main street of American history would send.
A commission formed to establish an African American history museum on the Mall is considering four sites in Washington; only two are on the Mall. Many African American groups have said if the museum is not built on the Mall, they would consider it a slight.
In his address in the East Room, Bush nudged the Smithsonian Institution, which has been given the responsibility by Congress to develop and build the museum, to make sure its Web site encourages "our fellow citizens to participate in helping to build it."
In the audience were Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small and Sheila Burke, deputy secretary and chief operating officer. Later, Burke said they had listened closely to the president. "He has an interesting point of view," she said, "and we will communicate that to the council and the regents." The governing board of the Smithsonian will select a location by early next year, she said.
The two possibilities on the Mall are the Smithsonian's aging Arts and Industries Building, on the south side of the Mall, just west of the Hirshhorn Museum, and an open block at 14th and Constitution, 250 yards northeast of the Washington Monument.
"The president's view does carry some weight, but everyone has to realize the realities of building on the Mall. The Arts and Industries Building would not be a signature building. Some people want a statement. The 14th and Constitution Avenue site might be controversial because of its proximity to the Washington Monument grounds," Burke said. Consultants are doing a site study on the four locations, which include a site at the foot of the 14th Street Bridge and the Banneker Overlook at the end of the L'Enfant Plaza promenade. The $800,000 study is expected to be finished by fall.
Yesterday's White House reception came after the first meeting of the founding Council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The panel, appointed in December by the Smithsonian, will oversee development of the museum. Members including Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television; James A. Johnson, former chairman of Fannie Mae and the Kennedy Center board; Ann D. Jordan, former University of Chicago administrator and chairwoman of the National Symphony Orchestra board; and H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, attended the event.
Bush, who signed the bill authorizing the museum in 2003, gave a preview of what he might expect to see in the museum. He cited the foresight of historian Carter G. Woodson, who founded Negro History Week 79 years ago, and the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, represented by several of the survivors of the famed World War II unit. He acknowledged the "ever beautiful" actress Cicely Tyson and noted the death of actor Ossie Davis. He talked about his trip to Goree Island in Senegal, the departure point for millions of captured Africans.
While Bush talked about the importance of the museum, he also said he was ready to back up his support with a monetary gift. "Laura and I want to be one of your first contributors, and so I -- " he began, stopping as applause drowned out his remarks. Then he added, "You know where to find me."