Among the most difficult decisions that Lonnie G. Bunch III had to make as he searched the world for objects to tell the story of African Americans was whether to include a casket that once held the mangled body of a murdered black boy.
“I remember struggling with, ‘Should we collect that?’ ” said Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Even after he accepted Emmett Till’s casket, which Till’s family gave to the museum long after his remains had been exhumed and reinterred, Bunch grappled with the idea of including it in an exhibit. “Was that too ghoulish?” he wondered.
As leaders of the new museum, Bunch and his curators must strike a delicate balance.
Every year, millions of tourists come to Washington to seek inspiration — in marble monuments to the nation’s heroes and leaders, in temples of democracy and civic power. Now, for the first time, Americans will have a museum on the Mall celebrating black pioneers and highlighting the success stories of African Americans.
Excitement surrounding the historic institution propelled its boosters through 11 years of collecting artifacts and fundraising to the tune of $315 million. It will open Sept. 24 with a dedication attended by President Obama and with an invitation-only Kennedy Center gala.
But for such a museum to claim scholarly integrity, uplift is not enough. In the years preceding next month’s celebration, Bunch has had to consider how much of the dark corners of American history to expose. He and the museum’s curators say they are ready to tell what African American historian John Hope Franklin called the “unvarnished truth” of the nation’s racial past.
The question is: Are visitors ready to hear it?
As painful as it may be, Bunch said, it’s essential that his institution delve into stories such as that of Till, the Chicago teenager who was murdered for whistling at a white woman during a visit to Mississippi — an event that galvanized the civil rights movement.
“You couldn’t tell the story of the African American experience without wrestling with difficult issues, without creating those moments where people have to ponder the pain of slavery, segregation or racial violence,” Bunch said.
But he said he also knew “that this was not a museum of crime or guilt or holocaust.”
And so the museum’s airy upper floors — the Culture and Community galleries — will feature the uneven-bar grips used by gymnast Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics and a terry-cloth robe worn by Muhammad Ali. Visitors will be able to gawk at Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and wax nostalgic through an exhibit on the birth of hip-hop.
Feel free to go straight up there if you want — it’s fun. But the museum has been designed to nudge you to descend first into its lower levels. Take one of the elevators down. Move through a dark and low-slung concourse. You will find the remains of the São José, a Portuguese slave ship that sank off the coast of South Africa; a narrow South Carolina slave cabin; and a set of shackles so diminutive they could only have been used on a child.
The effect is haunting. It’s meant to be.
“It’s a lot to take in,” said historian Noelle Trent, who helped train the museum’s docents. “It is very emotional to have so much history interpreted in a confined space.”
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Surveys conducted by the Smithsonian Institution in the run-up to the new museum’s creation found that the public is conflicted over learning more about slavery. It ranked as both the top subject that visitors want to know more about — and the one they’re least interested in exploring. Bunch and his team see themselves as providing deeper knowledge to those already familiar with the story of slavery and helping others see that understanding black history is central to understanding American history.
“Slavery is this horribly painful moment, but it is also a moment when people were strong and lived a life that many of us would emulate if we could in terms of trying to keep family together despite everything,” Bunch said. Presenting this complexity is part of his attempt to push the public to embrace ambiguity. “We’re not giving them simple answers to complex questions,” he said.
The museum addresses Americans’ apprehension about discussing these issues in part by linking the story of slavery to the push for freedom. Displayed alongside the shackles and instruments of torture are Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s Bible and freedom papers carried by a former slave.
But Bunch determined early on that visitors would not be able to skip through the history galleries without encountering stories of racial violence.
They will see images of lynching and of a slave being whipped. The most brutal lynching photos are placed so that museum-goers can avoid looking at them head-on, but they cannot totally escape them. According to historical data collected by the Tuskegee Institute, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1951: 3,437 black and 1,293 white. The museum makes it clear that such violence was not a rarity.
“You don’t want people to think that was so exotic and so unusual,” Bunch said. “When we talk about the extremes in America vis-a-vis race, we always discuss it as if only the craziest of people are doing that, but . . . there were times when people’s silence encouraged racial violence. I wanted people to realize that this was part of how America was made. Not to say that was the key, but part of the job [of this museum] is to unpack what it means to be an American.”
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Officials planning the new museum consulted with the leaders of both the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York — two institutions devoted to uniquely horrific moments in history.
The African American museum will share those museums’ philosophy regarding the best way to convey the pain of difficult historical episodes — through compelling artifacts.
When Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek concentration camps, they found very few surviving prisoners. But they did find hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes. A huge mound of 4,000 shoes in the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s permanent exhibition is often cited as its most searing display, said Edward “Ted” Phillips, the museum’s director of exhibitions and resources.
“We don’t have to have graphic images of emaciated bodies to represent the mass slaughter of humans,” Phillips said. “Gruesome is just not necessary.”
Similarly, the 9/11 museum debated how to share the story of the men and women who jumped or fell from the twin towers as they crumbled. The museum’s governing board, which includes victims’ relatives, was committed to including an exhibit on the subject; it is located in an alcove, centered around startling digital stills instead of explicit moving images.
“Obviously the story of race in America is much longer than 9/11 as an event,” said Joe Daniels, president of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. “But for the people that still feel rightly the pain of what existed, having a museum that takes responsibility for helping people process that is important.”
That is Bunch’s goal. He said it’s essential that his museum draw in Americans from all racial backgrounds and help them see slavery — and other aspects of black history — as part of our collective story.
There are, of course, villains in that story, and the new museum will address the brutality of slavery and those who profited economically and politically from racial segregation. But its focus is on how African Americans survived those challenges, not on the people who perpetrated them. The museum wants to be a place where descendants of Southern slave owners can engage with black history alongside the descendants of African American sharecroppers.
This is an issue that a museum such as the Holocaust Museum doesn’t have to deal with, because in that case, as Bunch pointed out, “the bad guys aren’t American.”
Part of the mission of the new museum, he said, “is to give people not just what they want but what they need. People need to understand who we are as Americans, and you can’t understand that if you don’t understand slavery and segregation.”
At the same time, he recognizes that reaching this understanding can be profoundly upsetting.
At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, established at the site of the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, visitors confront difficult racial history similar to what they will find in Washington’s new museum. There is an exhibit on slavery and one, of course, on King’s death.
“I have seen different people react in different ways,” said Trent, the historian, who is also director of interpretation, collections and education at the Memphis museum. “You see someone and they get to Dr. King’s room and walk away” unmoved, without engaging with the subject matter. On the other hand, she said, “you see some people in the slavery exhibit, and they start to tear up, and by the time they get to Dr. King’s room they are in hysterics. You just don’t know how people are going to react.”
So Bunch’s team is training more than 300 volunteers to roam the museum, taking note of visitors’ body language and tone of voice, to look for those who might be in distress. Nurses will also be on call to help.
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The tour through history at the Smithsonian’s new museum moves from the exploration of slavery and freedom to exhibits on segregation and the period beyond 1968. Visitors walk up a ramp to enter the space containing these.
Bunch decided that he would display Till’s casket in a room in the “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom” exhibition.
The room is partitioned by a wall. The anteroom tells Till’s story in the words and voice of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who forced the funeral home that buried Emmett to hold an open-casket service. On the other side of the wall is the casket, placed on a pedestal. Painted on the wall behind it is a mural of the choir that sang at Till’s home-going service.
It’s “one of our most sacred objects,” the museum’s deputy director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, said of the casket.
“What this museum is going to do is make sure that America remembers that, at one point — and unfortunately some of that still goes on — we killed our children,” she said.
Bunch thought about Mamie Till Mobley, whom he met before her death in 2003, as the exhibit was being designed.
“She talked to me about how one of the most courageous things she did was to keep the casket open,” he said. “She said to me, ‘Emmett was martyred on the cross of racial injustice,’ and she wanted the world to see what they did to her son.”
He agreed. The world should see.