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New exhibit offers a sneak peak into the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Smithsonian Museum previews collections featured in the Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open in 2016. (Video: Reuters)

Construction on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the copper-and-glass layer cake that’s been rising on the National Mall since 2012, is behind schedule. Originally slated to open this year, NMAAHC is now aiming for 2016. In the meantime, curators Jackie Serwer and Rhea L. Combs created an exhibit at the National Museum of American History to provide a glimpse into the new institution’s collection.

“It’s been a real challenge for us to take the museum’s roughly 400,000 square feet and reduce it down to 2,700 square feet,” Combs says.

Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection” opens Friday. It’s a miniature version of the museum, with sections dedicated to history, community and culture. When NMAAHC opens, community and culture will each have a floor to itself, she says. The history section will take up the bottom three floors of the five-level building.

“That’s because understanding history is the foundation for everything else,” Combs says.

Displays on slavery and plantation life include shackles, a sugarcane knife and the shawl of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.

The history section also tells less well-known stories, such as that of the Perkins-Dennis family in Pennsylvania. Patriarch Prince Perkins likely fought in the Revolutionary War and used the money he earned to buy a farm, which his descendants still own.

“We wanted to show the sweep and scope of African-American history, including families who were never enslaved,” she says.

A section on African-Americans in the military features a rare photo of Massachusetts’ 55th Volunteer Regiment, an infantry unit that fought to free enslaved people in the South — despite the threat that, if caught, the soldiers would be sold into slavery themselves.

“You can see the fraternity, the way some of them are sitting having their heads on one another’s’ laps,” Combs says.

Also on display: a French medal won during World War I by African American infantryman Lawrence McVey. One of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” McVey fought under the command of the French, because the American military relegated blacks to unloading ships. France recognized the soldiers’ uncommon bravery under fire and awarded them the Croix de guerre.

“African Americans have been involved and invested in the front lines for this country, sacrificing themselves from the beginning,” Combs says. “It’s telling that other countries were quicker to recognize them.”

Around the time these soldiers were coming back from the war, Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald began a collaboration with educator Booker T. Washington to build schoolhouses for blacks living in the rural South. Desks from one such school are on view in the community section.

“It’s a wonderful example of the ways in which communities of mixed backgrounds have come together,” Combs says.

The culture section showcases African-American artists, writers, musicians and athletes. There’s a first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” The book was a bestseller in the American colonies and England.

Also on view: The tennis racket Althea Gibson used to win the women’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1957. She was the first African-American to play in the tournament.

“The sports section really explores the challenges that black athletes had to contend with,” Combs says.

For instance, a display on black race car drivers shows how they struggled to get corporate sponsorship and respect within what’s largely a white, Southern sport.

The culture section also boasts the exhibit’s largest object: James Brown’s electric organ.

“Many people don’t realize that organ was the first instrument he played,” Combs says. “He liked to start out his concerts on the organ, and people didn’t realize at first it was him playing.”

With music playing and fun objects, including the silver dresses worn by En Vogue in their “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” music video, the mood at the end of the exhibit is considerably lighter than it is at the beginning, Combs says.

“I think all those different emotions that one may experience as they travel through the exhibition are emblematic of what African-American people experienced throughout America’s history, including moments of strength, resilience and jubilation,” she says.

National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; opens Fri., free.

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