The Smithsonian Institution museums that dot the National Mall in Washington, D.C. memorialize a certain version of American history. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened earlier this month, is now a part of that official narrative. It recounts black history in the United States, and in doing so, presents a narrative about the story of America.
“The story of the African American is so central to America’s definition of itself, its notions of freedom and citizenship. I would never say this is more important than another story, but I would say if you really want to understand America, this is the lens through which to look,” Lonnie Bunch, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, told Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Washington Ideas Forum, presented by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. The new museum provides a “deeply rich look at African American culture and history, really looking at it, and allowing America to confront its tortured racial past,” Bunch said, adding that at the same time, “it really is saying, this is the story of us all.”
The question of how the new museum fits into the mosaic of Smithsonian museums—and more broadly, how black history informs American history—is complex. “How did you reconcile the notion that African American history in and of itself deserves its own specific place, as opposed to being integrated into the broader history of America?” Coates asked. “Being at the Museum of American history, I realized that one building couldn't tell the story, that even if we integrated pieces in, which was really important for us to do, there was so much of the context that would be left out. But I also worried about creating a separate museum for black people by black people,” Bunch replied. “What we did was realize that … this was a museum that used a particular culture as a lens to better understand what it means to be an American.”
There is an inevitable tension to the idea that the Smithsonian Institution, which is administered by the federal government, runs a museum dedicated to black history. Coates asked Bunch what it means to tell “the African American story through the Smithsonian, through the auspices of the federal government, given what the federal government’s relationship often has been to African American people.” Bunch acknowledged the tension, saying: “We have said to everybody that works with us, the key to surviving in this museum is tension, is to understanding and to play out that tension.”
Whatever the potential pitfalls, there are undoubtedly advantages to running a museum that will benefit from the visibility and reputation of the Smithsonian Institution. Still, Coates asked, “how do we get white people to come to this museum?” Bunch noted that the institution has “a benefit that you don’t have if you’re an African American museum in Chicago or New York and that is that we’re the Smithsonian.” He added: “The fact is that people come to the Smithsonian, regardless of race.”
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