Designer Sought for African American Museum

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 2008

The National Museum of African American History and Culture began the formal process of designing a building yesterday, one that will include a slave cabin and a Jim Crow railroad car.

The museum is not scheduled to open until 2015. But there is a certain urgency to identifying large artifacts that are likely to influence the shape of the exhibit space, said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of what will be the Smithsonian's 19th museum.

Yesterday, the museum issued a document inviting architectural firms to present their qualifications. The building will be on a five-acre site on Constitution Avenue, within the shadow of the Washington Monument.

The museum will be 350,000 square feet, slightly smaller than the National Museum of the American Indian at 400,000 square feet, and surpassing its cost at $500 million. Half of that figure will come from Congress. For the Native American museum, the federal government paid two-thirds of the cost. For the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian covered all expenses.

"Significant millions have been raised," said Bunch, adding that many donors prefer to see a model before writing a check. "The design phase is part of the fundraising strategy."

The document issued yesterday gives architectural and engineering firms 10 weeks to submit a summary of their experience and qualifications. A board, yet to be appointed, will cull the submissions to three to seven proposals, and a finalist will be named by next spring.

After the pool is narrowed, the design competition will last about six to eight weeks. The finalist will have 36 months to create a design and receive approval from federal and city oversight boards, said Sheryl L. Kolasinski, the director of planning and project management for the Smithsonian.

Kolasinski said the museum had already received hundreds of inquiries about the process.

Yesterday's announcement says the firms and teams should demonstrate an "appreciation of African American history and culture."

"We are committed to casting the widest possible net," Bunch said. The participation of a minority firm is "clearly encouraged."

The architects received a hefty mandate. Bunch said he wants the site "to sing" as well as respect its prominent location and enhance the Mall. "It also must help us to remember those often left out of history, such as an enslaved woman . . . who refused to let slavery strip her of her humanity, her humor and her family," he said. "Yet this museum must also let our audiences find the joy, the strength and the creativity that is at the heart of this community. . . . This is not an African American museum created to tell the African American story; rather, it is created to tell the quintessential American story."

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