A central principle of the future National Museum of African American History and Culture will be that the varied stories of African Americans have broad meaning to all people.
"The notion that African American history has limited meaning should be a concern for all of us," said Lonnie G. Bunch, the founding director of the planned museum that will be part of the Smithsonian Institution. For instance, he explained, he's been troubled by a survey in the 1990s in which 81 percent of white respondents said slavery had little to do with them, and in which 62 percent of the black respondents were uninterested in or embarrassed by slavery.
In his first public remarks since taking on the job of directing the planning of the museum, Bunch spoke at a luncheon meeting yesterday of the Association of African American Museums at the Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel. Bunch, a historian and former president of the Chicago Historical Society, said he had been wrestling with several approaches to the museum's mission.
Most important, he said, the museum must combat the natural tendency not to dwell on negative experiences such as slavery. "This desire to omit -- to forget disappointments, moments of evil and great missteps -- is both natural and instructive. It is often the essence of African American culture that is forgotten or downplayed," said Bunch.
A parallel approach would be to provide the general public with stories of inspiration. "It is crucial to remember that we are all made better by embracing the inspirational stories and lessons of African American culture," said Bunch. He cited a speech by Nelson Mandela in which the former president of South Africa said the actions of Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass had helped him survive the 27 years in the Robben Island prison.
The African American History Museum has long been a goal of many politicians, civil rights groups, historians and citizens. After a prolonged journey through Congress, the museum was approved, and President Bush signed the legislation in 2003. An independent firm is studying the feasibility of four sites recommended by Congress, and a choice is expected early next year.
Ever since the initial discussion about the museum, there has been a strong sentiment among its supporters that it should have a place on the Mall to symbolize the importance of the African American story in the country's history and the significance of the building itself. In February, Bush said emphatically that the museum should be on the Mall, where two of the four proposed sites are. The museum, which Congress estimated might cost as much as $300 million in both public and private funds, isn't expected to be finished before 2013.
The development of the museum is one of the most closely watched cultural enterprises in Washington. One key supporter, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), briefly joined Bunch on the dais and spoke of the project's importance. He said the museum's contents shouldn't have any "shortcuts" but should have a complete story that affects everybody, perhaps leading to racial reconciliation. "To heal [racial divides], you have to go back," said Brownback. He credited his own interest in the project to the fact that his mother grew up on property in Kansas where abolitionist John Brown stayed.
The directors of African American museums across the country, which are usually small and struggling financially, have watched the proposals for the national museum with special interest. Over the years, some directors have expressed fears that a national effort would take financial resources and materials from their own institutions. Bunch assured them that wasn't his intention.
"Ultimately," he said, "this museum will only be successful with the support and collaboration of the African American museum community. Hopefully this new institution will be like a beacon that will draw people to Washington and encourage them to revel in your stories and your institutions."
Afterward, Antoinette D. Wright, president of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, said she endorsed the idea of a national museum in Washington. "This is the American experience that has long been hidden, and this brings it to the forefront," said Wright.
The partnership between the new museum and the established African American enterprises needs to be balanced, she added. "We have long carried the banner for this, and we have to make sure this is a win-win collaboration."