African-American Museum Director Looking Far and Wide for Artifacts

Although the National Museum of African American History and Culture is not scheduled to open until 2015, founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III has already received hundreds of documents and artifacts that will help convey the African-American story to the public, the Washington Post reports.

When the $500 million museum opens in a new facility on five acres near the Washington Monument, it will include artifacts such as a trumpet once owned by Louis Armstrong, a Jim Crow railroad car, and the original coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy killed in Mississippi in 1955 whose battered body in an open casket became a pivotal rallying cry for the modern civil rights movement. To collect these and other items of significance, Bunch and his curatorial team have cast a wide net, holding community meetings in cities around the country where members of the general public can discuss their expectations for the museum and share mementos of that past.

"The exhibitions and opening the building are the priorities," Bunch told the Post. "Much of the twentieth-century and some of the nineteenth-century materials are in people's attics and basements and homes."

Part of the challenge in establishing the museum is determining which stories need to be told. For example, Bunch is not quite sure yet how to discuss slavery, but his wish list of artifacts includes a slave cabin and at least part of a slave ship. He's also interested in charting the transition from slavery to the quest for education, and his wish list includes a one-room schoolhouse or classroom interior from one of the schools funded by twentieth-century American businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.

Of course, because the museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the staff also has access to a Fort Knox of artifacts, from paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to sports memorabilia at the National Museum of American History. "We will purchase as a last resort," Bunch said. "I don't want to make the market unbalanced. But it is nearly impossible to get slavery material and great masters otherwise."

Jacqueline Trescott. "Piecing Together a People's History." Washington Post 09/04/2009.