The story of the battle for a National African American Museum is a story of courage and persistence. The doors opened in 2016 but before that date the museum had to navigate Congress, raise $270 million, and claim a portion of land located on the nation’s front lawn. It all began 11 years prior, with a museum director named Lonnie G. Bunch who had no land to build on, no building to use, no collections, and therefore no museum.
Mr. Bunch was appointed to lead the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The concept for this museum was challenged by a congregational battle that went on for decades until 2003. In 2003, President George W. Bush decided to authorize the approval for a National Museum that would be dedicated to the African-American experience. All that was left for Mr. Bunch and his colleagues to do was find an unprecedented collection of private donors who would be willing to finance this public museum. They also would be required to obtain hundreds of millions of extra dollars from a Republican-controlled Congress who were responsible for years of fighting against the project.
The approach and strategy that Mr. Bunch used were to highlight the museum as a unique institution for all Americans. It would be an example of remarkable achievement and progress after decades of painful oppression. His tactics included appointing key political Republican supporters to the museum’s board of trustees. He realized that this type of bipartisan support would be vital for shaping the thinking of other key political leaders.
Many years before the building was complete, for example, the museum would stage exhibitions off-site of some very controversial topics such as the deep involvement with slavery of Thomas Jefferson. This included bringing a Virginian delegation of congressional members for a tour of the Jefferson exhibition. The Jefferson exhibition included a statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in front of a semi-circular wall. The wall included over 600 names of slaves that Jefferson had owned.
Later the museum in historic Washington D.C. started to raise money from various black donors such as Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. However, they also requested donations from numerous fraternities, sororities, and churches. These type of organizations had never been asked for large donations before. More than 75% of the donations came from African-Americans.
The private donations were crucial in helping to secure additional funds from Congress. These private donations showed politicians just how seriously the museum was being taken by their constituents. Another key factor was the persistence of Lonnie Bunch who had previous intimate dealings with Chicago politicians. That experience and his skills as a facilitator helped him to navigate the entanglements of Washington, the federal government, and the Smithsonian Institute.
The design of the museum was awarded to a British architect who was born in Tanzania. There were six finalists who displayed their plans at the Smithsonian Castle. David Adjaye, the winning designer, spoke about the resiliency, uplift, and spirituality of the bronze colored new home for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Be sure to check out some of the other great museums and sites on your next visit to the District of Columbia.