The sun pours through the massive dome of the new Museum of African American History, scattering beams of light across a permanent design on the floor that works out in colored stones various symbols -- of slavery, of upward striving, of the quest for knowledge and the contemporary epidemic of violence.

Here in the rotunda begins a singular journey of thought, the reason this museum is now making its own history. The building, which opens officially this weekend, is now the largest black history museum in the world, immediately giving it leadership status among museums and providing a vivid blueprint for how the African American story can be told.

The light of the dome provides a brief relief. A few steps up from the rotunda, at the start of the museum's core exhibition, stands a steel bridge. On either side is a series of gray wooden barricades. On the barricades are etched the names of 2,500 slave ships, and underneath are the life-size figures of Africans tightly packed on the floor. Around the figures and under the bridge are 50 pairs of shackles. This design represents both the vessels that transported mainly young Africans into slavery in the New World and the people who met their new life with resistance and trepidation.

This is the unsettling departure point for viewing the contents of the museum. The slave faces -- cast from 50 local students -- travel with the viewer throughout the exhibition; the bridge and the figures can be seen from almost every curve of the main gallery. Their expressions foreshadow the stories -- of scientist George Washington Carver, singer and activist Paul Robeson, writer Zora Neale Hurston, singer Marvin Gaye, astronaut Mae Jemison and many others -- that are told here.

Walking across the bridge, Kimberly Camp, the museum's president, explains the feeling that she wants visitors to have as they view the posters, books, photo graphs, videotaped interviews and clothing. "The exhibition text, the panels are all done in a we' voice. It says we fought in the war and we still didn't gain freedom. We endured torturous times," she says, describing the museum's unmistakable African American point of view. "We incorporated the we' voice, but we didn't want the exhibition to be a sorrow song. That was my biggest worry. We have not had it easy, and it would be very easy to say, Look what has happened to us.' It is horrible. . . . Yes, this happened and we moved on."

Now the African American story has a distinctive place to be told, an imposing home prominently located near the Detroit Institute of Arts. The $38.4 million project, built with city funds, is big: 120,000 square feet. There are two spacious galleries for temporary shows, a 300-seat theater and a restaurant. The dome is 100 feet wide, with the circular space below meant to evoke ancient African meeting places.

With the largest building, the largest staff and, at $6.8 million, the biggest annual budget of any black museum, the new institution is now a force among the 100-plus African American art and history museums in the U.S.

Why could such a vast project succeed in Detroit when a similar effort has, thus far, failed in Washington? During the 1980s, debate was heated as the Smithsonian Institution attempted to launch an African American museum. But although Washington has a long, illustrious black history, the Motor City is also a natural place for taking the measure of African American history. Some of the most pivotal movements in American history have their roots here: The city was an important terminus for the Underground Railroad and one of the major destinations of the black migration from the South around the turn of the century. Lured by factory jobs, black Southerners flocked northward, and the black population in Detroit leaped by 661 percent from 1910 to 1920. Among those who came north was champion Joe Louis's stepfather.

Social history evolved from this industrial center, too. The first temple of the Nation of Islam was established by W.D. Fard in 1929. Aretha Franklin and Della Reese spent their childhoods here. Rosa Parks, the spirit of the modern civil rights movement, has made her home in Detroit for 30 years. And in the '50s and '60s, Motown and its stars brought a revolutionary sound out of poor neighborhoods onto international stages and into a generation's memory.

The simplicity of the new museum's message -- the importance of the African American contribution to American life -- makes all the controversy around the Smithsonian plan seem even more wrongheaded and foolish. But the efforts in Washington and Detroit have obvious differences.

Detroit has had a small African American history museum, drawn from the collection of one man, for 30 years. Five years ago, the city politicians and planners decided it had outgrown what was then a relatively new facility. The effort to find a new home had strong political support, and then-Mayor Coleman Young said he wanted a showcase museum, a goal taken up by his successor, Mayor Dennis Archer. The city passed a bond proposal for $20 million, later adding $3.5 million in block grants for site preparation. The corporate community, led by Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Corp., gave generously.

Since the facility was an expansion of an existing museum that had educated the city about the importance of the subject, supporters knew what they were getting into. The project didn't get bogged down in how to tell the black American story, or which parts of it to include.

Civic activists, historians, local and national politicians had been arguing about the need for a public acknowledgment of and a showcase for black achievements in Washington for 30 years. Some advocates of the idea wanted a private museum; others thought the government should take the lead. In the late 1960s the Smithsonian established a storefront facility, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, that was supposed to focus on its Southeast neighborhood but, propelled by the area's demographics, became in fact a regional black museum.

But some persistent supporters of the idea of a national African American museum argued that having a piece of real estate on the Mall, in the center of the capital, was important. Others attacked the idea of a federal project because it would be part of the predominantly white Smithsonian, with its spotty record on minority programming and hiring. An additional problem existed because nothing could be done within the Smithsonian without congressional approval.

Despite all this public tooth-gnashing, the plan gained some momentum. It had strong advocates on the Hill, who faithfully kept introducing legislation to authorize the new museum. In 1990 the Smithsonian appointed a board of advisers and a year later approved a plan to renovate the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall to house the new museum. Supporters on the Hill continued to introduce legislation and one House bill passed in 1994, as did a Senate version in a key committee.

But the plan started to stumble late in 1994 when federal budget-cutting became the ruling mantra.. It didn't help that some of the project's staunchest advocates didn't talk about the cultural contribution that a black history museum would make; rather they made an equity argument -- based on the idea that all ethnic groups deserve a showcase.

The Smithsonian, facing a Republican-majority Congress that didn't want to fundany new facilities, reshaped the idea. In August 1995, the Center for African American History and Culture, an interim history research and exhibition center, was established.

"The keys -- the dream, the constituencies and the resources -- have to come together," says Steven Newsome, the director of both the Anacostia Museum and the interim center. Any future project, he says, would have to include private funding, an avenue that the Smithsonian as a whole is aggressively investigating.

Some museum professionals argued that just the possibility of a national black museum in Washington would drain the marketplace of givers of both money and artifacts, and Camp says that many collectors she approached did indeed put the Smithsonian first. "They would say, Oh no, we're going to send it to Washington. We're waiting it out.' That was a little tough," she says.

Camp is circumspect about this state of affairs. "I think its stalling has left open a window of opportunity for us," she says. Camp was familiar with all the arguments about the museum project, having worked at the Smithsonian for five years as the founding director of the now defunct Experimental Gallery. But she decided the new museum was an opportunity she couldn't miss, and signed on three years ago.

Though many of the country's black museums have unique collections and missions, Camp acknowledges that the new museum has taken on a leadership role. "It is a tremendous opportunity to raise the bar a few inches, not only for the African American museum community but for the community of multicultural arts organizations. There was opportunity here to redefine what an African American museum could do, what it could be and how it could function."

John Fleming, the executive director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, and the immediate past president of the African American Museums Association, welcomes the new building and expansion. "So many of our museums are small with few staff, often run by volunteers. We need large museums like this to provide leadership, role models and offer workshops where they can teach people in the smaller museums good museum standards."

Camp agrees that the grandness of the new museum delivers an important message about the value of minority museums. And she argues that minority museum professionals need to make it known that they have a unique audience -- one that makes a worthwhile investment for corporate donors. She points out that Ford gave $1 million to the museum. "We will get their $1 million. They will get the opportunity to walk in this space and say, We proudly gave a gift,' " she says.

The strongest evidence of the museum's value is the exhibitions themselves. So far, only the permanent overview exhibition is in place. It was designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the creator of installations at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the African Meeting House in Boston. The architects were the local Sims-Varner & Associates. Later this year the two galleries for changing exhibitions will house a large show on Africa, adapted from the holdings of the Field Museum in Chicago, and an art exhibition on Vodou, the main religion of Haiti.

In the main hall, seven sections chronicle the harsh treatment, the fight for survival and the successes of blacks in America over 400 years. These stations start with "African Memory" and use quotes, statistics and artifacts to illustrate the journey toward "The Struggle for Empowerment." In every section, a towering glass case holds a group of art works, with each item assigned a human characteristic. A Shona headrest is labeled "poise," while a sweet-grass basket made in South Carolina represents "grace."

"What we really wanted to do is have the artifacts as evidence, as metaphor for the concepts and ideas that are being talked about in the images and text of the exhibition," Camp says. She refused to go the bells-and-whistles route that is driving most new or refurbished museums these days, preferring to tell the story straight, although from a clearly African American perspective.

Interactive gizmos were purposefully left out. "They don't do anything. People don't learn any better with those. There is no evidence to suggest that, and they cost a lot of money and they are difficult to maintain. We thought we didn't want to go that route unless we were sure more message would come," she says. A thinking experience, one that leaves visitors with questions, is her goal.

And this straightforward approach works -- simply, sometimes hauntingly. In one section, plain white boards list, in plain black type, various Jim Crow laws: Separate telephone booths in Oklahoma, 1915; segregated racetracks in Arkansas, 1937. The stark simplicity of the words draws the visitor closer, just like the casts of the juvenile slaves on the floor just inside the main entrance. CAPTION: Detroit's Museum of African American History features sculptures of African slaves aboard ship, above. A Giant Bambara mask from Mali, left, greets visitors outside the museum. CAPTION: Rosa Parks's history-making refusal to give up her seat on the bus is depicted, above. Now, she's a Detroit resident. Museum President Kimberly Camp, below, says the museum is "all done in a we' voice." CAPTION: The Museum of African American History, above, is the largest of its kind in the world. Its rotunda, below is brightly lit.