In the excitement over the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, it’s easy to forget that for a long time, in many quarters, the word “museum” has been a bit suspect. To say that something “belongs in a museum” is another way of saying that it belongs to a forgotten or dead past, or has become irrelevant. For much of the 20th century, museums were criticized as vestigial remnants of colonialism, patriarchy, elitism and what we now call “white privilege.” The last time the Smithsonian opened a new museum on the Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian, in 2004, it welcomed visitors with exhibitions that were in direct argument with traditional museum presentation: Native cultures represented themselves from the ground up, on their own terms, without reference to existing disciplines of anthropology or social history. It was, perhaps, the high-water mark in Washington for the anti-museum museum. It also felt intensely self-conscious, an awkward effort to encapsulate centuries of diverse subcultures for a popular audience without the old, omniscient voice of authority for guidance.
One doesn’t hear any of that self-consciousness among the curators and leaders of the new African American history museum. In the weeks and months before the opening, museum officials stressed the difficulty of the project, the scale of their ambition and the impressive success they have had building a collection, securing funding and completing the new building that stands on the Mall in the shadow of the Washington Monument. They focused on their hope that the museum would weave African American history together with the larger narrative of American history, such that the former could never be suppressed or forgotten, and the two skeins never disentangled. They talked about African American history as a “lens on America,” and the museum as a place of healing, remembrance and discovery.
The plan for the new museum is essentially conservative: It will tell history in chronological order; it will conform to the basic outlines of museum design that have been in place for at least a quarter-century, a mix of storytelling and emotionally inflected objects that serve as illustrations, with a careful balance of dark truths and spiritual uplift; and it will aim at a consensus of opinion, taking no particular stand on larger questions that animate scholars of race and black history, including perhaps the most fundamental: Is race a biologically meaningful category, or a cultural invention? In more than a dozen conversations with museum officials, no one mentioned Critical Race Theory, which has transformed how many scholars and critics think about race and whiteness, and when asked about new scholarly insights, they pointed to ideas about slavery — that we must understand the narrative of resilience and survival along with the narrative of suffering — that have been in currency for half a century at least. Certainly no one is mentioning “revisionism,” a buzzword that inflamed anger at some of the most important Smithsonian exhibitions during the culture wars of the 1990s.
It is a remarkable moment in the history of museums. Almost 50 years ago, in the winter of 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition that has since become iconic in the drama of inclusion and exclusion that African Americans have faced when dealing with major American cultural institutions. “Harlem on My Mind” was supposed to be an act of outreach and cross-cultural learning.
But the organizers neglected to invite participation from actual residents of Harlem, published a catalogue that trivialized African American voices and excluded art by African Americans in the exhibition, which used large photographs, multimedia, projections and sound to create an ethnographic picture of Harlem as a place, rather than allow the artists of Harlem to speak directly to museum visitors. Black artists, including Romare Bearden, protested, and the painter William T. Williams, whose work is prominently displayed in the art gallery of the new museum, spoke for many when he said: “The ‘Harlem on My Mind’ show is a pointing example of total rejection on the part of the establishment, of saying, ‘Well, you’re really not doing art’ or of not dealing with the artists that may exist or do exist in Harlem. These shows deal with the sociological aspects of a community, a historical thing.”
The anger was profound and far-reaching, forcing an apology from the director of the Met, galvanizing African Americans throughout the museum world to demand better and more inclusive treatment, and spurring black artists and curators to work independently to create exhibitions free from the social and curatorial control of the white establishment. It animated the Black Arts Movement, which in turn inspired new generations of Latino, feminist and gay and lesbian artist-activists to pursue autonomous, independent, separatist cultural paths. Those paths have come full circle, with the new museum reflecting the leadership and contribution of African American scholars and curators who have worked within the mainstream museum world for a generation or more.
Looking back on the “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition, it’s curious how much of the basic design and material of the show has become standard museum design: Photographs blown up larger-than-life, recorded sounds and voices filtering in from hidden speakers, an “immersive” environment that subdivides larger galleries into smaller rooms and passage spaces. Today, that’s become the hallmark of blue-chip museum designers, such as Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which the African American Museum hired to design its exhibition spaces. Appelbaum, perhaps the best known and most trusted museum designer in the world, has also created galleries for the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The new museum’s website skates over more than a century of passionate argument about whether African American history should or can be told within the context of the American “master narrative” — for a long time a pejorative term — and juxtaposes two phrases: “A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story.” Although the 1960s and ’70s will be thoroughly and dispassionately examined within the museum, the thrilling rejection of dominant power structures that fueled black scholarship and criticism, the debate over black nationalism, and the old skepticism toward museums that flourished after “Harlem on My Mind” have been laid to rest.
The new museum is happily, self-consciously and entirely by design an institutional venture. Everything is being done thoroughly, carefully and cautiously.
Are museum leaders worried, at all, about the new and unapologetic racism that is emerging in America today, the white power movement, the nascent separatism of the new bigotry? If so, they demurred. They also deflected questions about the very real possibility that some Americans, when confronted with the truth of the black experience, will become angry or confrontational. When asked about the things most likely to disturb visitors, curators consistently came back to one object, the coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was abducted, beaten and shot to death after being accused of “familiarity” with a white woman. The 1955 lynching of Till, and the acquittal of his killers, shocked people of conscience, terrified African Americans and fueled the emotions that led to bus boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides.
Till’s coffin, which will be displayed in the museum’s segregation-era galleries, is a painful object but not one likely to inflame the kind of visitor who posts anonymous racist comments on the Internet or trolls African American celebrities on Twitter. What will the reaction be to, say, a copy of Gwendolyn Brooks’s passionate poem “Riot,” a classic document of the Black Arts Movement that, upon publication in 1969, was accused by critics of celebrating violence (“. . . in a thrilling announcement, on It drove,” writes Brooks, personifying the anger of the crowd directed at a posh white man who will “die expensively today”). Or a cap emblazoned with the initials F.O.I, which stand for Fruit of Islam, the paramilitary defense squad of the Nation of Islam? Among the objects in the collection — an important, essential and necessary part of this history — is a Koran owned by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who declared white people like the serpent, writing, “Black people have a heart of gold, love and mercy. Such a heart, nature did not give to the white race. This is where the so-called Negroes are deceived in this devil race.”
It is the reaction to that kind of object that one wonders about. The material collected since the museum was established in 2003 leaves no doubt that the exhibitions will deal with the breadth of the African American experience, including not just the reassuring desire for full integration and coexistence, but also the frustration, despair and anger that often led people to conclude: There is no place for us here. When asked about the more fraught objects among the some 3,000 things that will be on view, founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III quotes the historian John Hope Franklin, who urged historians to “tell the unvarnished truth.” Bunch repeats this line several times in an interview, as a kind of mantra. It is a powerful injunction not just to the historian, but also to those who package history in museums for mainstream audiences.
But it assumes that people want to hear, are capable of hearing and are able to process the “unvarnished truth.” And that remains the biggest and most uncertain question as the country awaits the opening of this museum. Does an honest audience exist for this new institution? And will it make a difference? The basic conservatism of the new museum, its Smithsonian look and feel, and all the trust that name inspires, will help many visitors grapple with the obvious, ugly and manifest truths of racism and its impact on black culture. But those same markers of authority, and complicated mix of museum and monument, narrative and celebration, in the galleries may also antagonize those who don’t want to, or can’t handle the truth. And in the years since the museum was authorized by Congress, perhaps the biggest change in American society is how many people have become comfortable with staring at the unpleasant and undeniable and saying, “That’s not what I see.”
How does the new museum reach the audience it needs to reach when that same audience can watch videos of young, unarmed African American men shot by police in cold blood and say, “There’s another side to the story?”
It’s hard to know what the Smithsonian and leaders of the African American Museum will define as a success for the latest museum franchise on the Mall. Large crowds? Ongoing and steady attendance? Emergence as an obligatory stop, like the Holocaust Museum, on every family’s once-a-decade tourist pilgrimage? Often, in conversations, officials speak of “Day Two,” the next chapter, once they’ve finished the frantic drive to Saturday’s finish line. They may not want it, and may quietly dread it, but one hopes that Day Two is as tumultuous as anything the Smithsonian has ever experienced. Because it takes only a cursory immersion in African American history, in the broken promises of Reconstruction, the re-enslavement of Jim Crow, the shabby hypocrisy of segregation, the structural impoverishment of mid-century housing policy, and the hollow self-congratulations of the “post-racial” present to realize that this narrative of American history must not be domesticated within a traditional history museum.