The National Museum of African American History and Culture expects to draw tens of thousands visitors to its September celebration that will include lavish dinners, a White House reception and a star-studded performance at the Kennedy Center.
And those events happen before the actual Sept. 24 opening, when President Obama will cut the ribbon before an estimated crowd of 20,000, Founding Director Lonnie Bunch said Wednesday.
Dignitaries from around the country and the world are expected, as are church groups, museum members, and those who donated objects and money.
“We expect that to be a miniinauguration,” Bunch said. “It will be seen as a pilgrimage for many people.”
Meanwhile, the museum has blazed past its $270 million goal in private donations. As of last month, it had raised $273.6 million from corporations, foundations and individuals, including more than $20 million from Oprah Winfrey, its largest single donor. Bunch believes they will raise close to $300 million by the opening.
The museum will open to the public about 1 p.m. that day, after the speeches have ended. (“We’re trying to do the impossible, limit the number of speeches,” Bunch said with a smile.
A mini-Folklife Festival is planned for the Mall, with tents for music and food. It will all be free, Bunch said, noting that he has raised $8 million so far to cover the costs of the celebration.
The Kennedy Center will host an invitation-only performance on Friday, Sept. 23. Produced by Quincy Jones, the event will feature Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and other top performers, although Bunch was mum on names. There will be a lottery for Washington schoolchildren who want to attend, and some tickets made available to supporters of all kinds.
Earlier that evening, Obama will host a reception at the White House.
Other private receptions are planned, including a dinner in the museum on Sept. 23 for donors who gave at least a halfmillion dollars. Events will be held for construction workers and Smithsonian staff. The evening of the opening, a gala will start at the Arts and Industries Building and conclude at the museum with dessert and dancing.
“It might be harder to open a museum than it is to build it,” Bunch said.
The museum has invited the living presidents and many national and international dignitaries to the ribbon-cutting. Bunch said he had yet to decide whether presidential nominees would be invited.
Bunch described the flurry of work to be finished in the 100 or so days until the opening. Several thousand objects that will be on display in the 11 exhibitions must still be installed, as well as thousands of images and 134 videos.
The videos bring “nuance and complexity” to the galleries and are part of the museum’s effort to integrate technology. There will be many immersive experiences woven into a more traditional approach. “We are finding the [balance] between tradition and innovation,” he said.
As of May 31, the museum had raised $273.6 million from private donors, but some of those gifts are for programs and endowment. It still needs more donations to cover its half of the $540 million in construction costs, Bunch said. Congress already provided its share of $270 million.
The capital campaign is the largest in the Smithsonian’s history. It will continue right up to the opening weekend.
“You want to be $20 or $30 million over, to be perfectly honest,” Bunch said. He expects they will.
Public hours for the museum during the first few days are still being determined and will depend on anticipated demand. Capacity is about 10,000 visitors a day, he said, so they are discussing keeping the museum open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. or perhaps 24 hours straight, as the National Museum of the American Indian did in 2004.
The museum also is working with African American museums and other institutions across the country to host viewing parties of the celebration for those unable to attend what he called “the coda to the Obama administration.”
“A lot of people have been waiting for this, to share their objects and their stories,” he said.