Lonnie Bunch can see the finish line.
The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture promised Thursday that the 19th Smithsonian museum will open in 18 months with a series of
11 exhibitions focused on history, community and culture.
A sample of the planned
exhibitions opens Friday in its temporary space in the National Museum of American History. “Through the African-American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection” features a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman, a uniform worn by a Pullman porter, James Brown’s red jumpsuit and James Baldwin’s copy of his play “Blues for Mister Charlie.”
“Ten years ago, we began with a staff of two, we didn’t know where our building would be, and we didn’t have a single artifact. All we had were the hopes and expectations of generations,” Bunch said. “It was our job to make their deferred dreams real. We are 18 months away.”
The museum has collected more than 33,000 artifacts and has raised more than $476 million for the 400,000-square-foot building that is rising on a five-acre lot in the shadow of the Washington Monument. As its bronzelike scrim is being installed on the exterior, the crown-shaped building is taking shape as a celebration of African American resilience and creativity, he said.
No opening date has been set, but Bunch repeated that President Obama will cut the ribbon when it opens “next fall,” about a year behind schedule. As crews work seven days a week on the construction site, the museum’s 160-member staff is focused on the exhibitions, Bunch said.
“The biggest worry I had was, could we find the stuff of history, the artifacts that really engage visitors?” he said.
Clearly, the answer is yes. Bunch said curators and senior staff have crossed the country to build the collection, meeting with everyday Americans as well as experts. They have acquired a powder horn owned by an African American soldier who fought in the American Revolution, a slave shackle worn by a child, Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and a terry cloth robe worn by Muhammad Ali.
“So much of our heritage is in people’s basements, trunks and attics,” he said.
As an example, Bunch told of discovering the freedom paper carried by former slave Joseph Trammel. “This shows the tenuous nature of freedom,” Bunch said about the paper, which Trammell carried in a homemade tin. “The fact that the family had it for generations, and then said, ‘You should have it.’ That’s powerful.”
There will be three exhibitions: “Slavery and Freedom,” “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation” and “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” In the Community section, curators will examine sports, military service, the role of place in African American identity and stories of African Americans who contested the racial status quo. The Culture section will focus on music, visual arts and cultural expressions.
Among the highlights of the collection are a 1944 biplane used to train Tuskegee pilots, a fedora worn by Michael Jackson, a dress owned by Rosa Parks, a leotard worn by Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas and a tennis racket used by Althea Gibson.
Bunch said curators are also collecting items reflecting current events, including representations of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and T-shirts worn during Black Lives Matter marches.
“This museum has to be as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday,” Bunch said. “ People tend to think we are always looking back, but our goal is to make sure we have captured [current history] to help people understand it, and to help curators 50 years from now.”
Bunch said that the federal government has delivered on its promised half of the $540 million project and that the museum has raised $200 million from private sources. Almost half has come from corporate donors, with foundations contributing a third. Individual donations — including membership dues from about 81,888 people from all 50 states — have totaled about $50 million, he said. Officials still need to raise between $50 million and $70 million, but Bunch said they expect to reach that goal before the opening.