Black History Museum Debuts Online

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Though its physical construction is years away, the National Museum of African American History and Culture today is inaugurating an online spot where visitors can help shape its content.

One feature of the Web site, named after the museum, is a Memory Book, where people can submit a story, photograph or audio recording that tells something about themselves or a moment in African American history.

Other components give a broad look at things the museum is likely to include, such as highlights of the museum's first exhibition, 100 portraits from the National Portrait Gallery and the International Center of Photography, to open at the National Portrait Gallery next month. The museum has also posted recordings of actor and singer Paul Robeson and activist Angela Davis. The recordings are from the archives of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Lonnie G. Bunch, founding director of the museum, said yesterday the virtual presence at would provide more visibility. After years of political battles, the museum won approval in 2003. It is scheduled to open in 2015 on the Mall.

"This is another tool that helps us hear, learn from and reach the public. We will always be a place of scholarship, and the presentations will be informed by that," Bunch said.

The site was developed by IBM, using social-networking technology that will allow visitors to contribute content and build their own community.

"This is an opportunity for people to be part of the curatorial process, to contribute their own memories, their own treasures. They are part of the creation of the content and connections," says Stan Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate affairs. The memory sharing, he said, could be about the impact of Martin L. King Jr.'s 1963 "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" or watching Nelson Mandela walk free after 27 years of imprisonment.

Litow said IBM's involvement was initiated by Samuel J. Palmisano, the company's chairman. He is a member of the museum's advisory council. IBM's work was equivalent to a $1 million donation, the company said.

The site has built-in systems that will review and edit the materials. "There is a technological monitor that prevents people from writing racist rants and swear words," Bunch said. "Initially, IBM and our staff, and then ultimately our staff, will look at it for accuracy. I want to make sure nothing on the Web site goes counter to scholarship, that nothing goes counter to our values as a museum, and nothing is counter to what the Smithsonian is."

Initial contributors to the Memory Book are Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco; Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund; and Kelvin B. Fowler, who describes how his great-great-grandfather escaped slavery by joining a group of fishermen. Lomax shares a story about Almena Lomax, his mother and a newspaper owner and journalist in Los Angeles, taking her family on the bus to Tuskegee, Ala., in 1961.

"I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to bridge the generations and recognize the heroism I see in her," Lomax explained. He attached a copy of his mother's report, called "Journey to the Beginning."

"It was so appropriate, given the museum's purpose -- to present a collective journey back to the beginning, to tell our stories, to give voice to the voiceless," Lomax says.

Part of the Web site is devoted to instructions about identifying and preserving photographs, diaries and legal documents. Bunch is also scouting for collections that could be donated to the museum.

"I'm convinced that most of the 19th and 20th century is in people's homes in the attic and basement," Bunch says.

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