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New national museum of African American history given challenging mandate

September 24, 2016 - UNITED STATES

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington DC with a mandate to commemorate, celebrate, provoke and heal. President Barack Obama, an African American, will cut the ribbon. The healing part remains a challenge as the collection shows that the trials of African Americans did not end with the abolition of slavery.

The 34,000 artefacts include a railroad passenger car that dates to the Jim Crow era, a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman, a travelling trunk that belonged to the family of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, an airplane used to train Tuskegee airmen, Nat Turner's Bible and hundreds of other rare and rarely seen objects that curators have been steadily collecting since the museum was established.

The museum has the difficult task of telling a vast story that is, at times, excruciating, with the slavery and segregation eras representing the epitome of cruelty. The collection also covers contemporary wrongs and controversies, as well as the success stories of the country's African Americans.

Contemporary wrongs in the mix include recent street violence in the predominantly black areas of Baltimore and Chicago, persistent inequality and injustice, and the unfolding story of the legal troubles of comedian Bill Cosby: revelations about his alleged sexual predation generated huge headlines because he was long regarded as a symbol of family decency.

The uplifting part of the story covers those black Americans who broke through endemic racial prejudice in the United States to become celebrated figures of their time. The array of individuals includes sports figures, authors, entertainers and politicians. The most notable, by many measures, is President Obama. His election to the highest office, as an African American in the racially-charged United States, counts as a remarkable feat.

The museum, one of a suite of national museums administered by the Smithsonian Institute, was established in 2003 in legislation signed by George W. Bush. The official ground breaking for the five-storey building took place on Feb 22, 2012.

Opening Day for the New African American History Museum Is Announced (Smithsonian 2 Feb 2016)

How Do You Tell the Story of Black America in One Museum?

Smithsonian Says Museum Will Include Mention of Bill Cosby Sexual Assault Accusations (NYT 1 Apr 2016)

Smithsonian Institute

Date written/update: 2016-04-13