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What the Smithsonian's African American Museum Means to Chocolate City

Will the new National Museum of African American History and Culture bridge the gap between the National Mall and D.C.’s black community?

Rex Hammock/Flickr

Hype is mounting for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Meshell Ndegeocello, The Roots, Public Enemy: On Wednesday, the Smithsonian Institution announced that these stars and more will perform at the museum’s September 24 opening. So will D.C.’s hometown go-go favorites, Experience Unlimited.

Other institutions are hitching their wagons to the new museum’s opening. On September 21, the architect behind the brand new museum, David Adjaye, will meet with the acclaimed Chicago-based social-practice artist Theaster Gates for a public discussion. The dialog is taking place at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, with much of the discussion focused on the building down the road.

Before the talk, Gates will debut “Processions,” a four-part series of performances at the Hirshhorn. He will be accompanied by the Black Monks of Mississippi, an order of musicians that treats the blues as a sacred rite. Gates often works with the Black Monks; for the inaugural Hirshhorn performance, The Runners, he will also be joined by performers from an unexpected quarter: track athletes from Howard University.

The opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is turning out to be an enormous national happening. The museum, some 300 years in the making, occupies the last available parcel on the National Mall. Its opening is especially significant for Washington, D.C.—not the nation’s capital, but rather Chocolate City, a majority-black community whose artists and residents have rarely found purchase on the Mall.

A physical and cultural gathering space

“All cultures need places where their things can land and be celebrated,” Gates says. “For D.C., locals now have the bragging rights of having a home for reflection on black lives and black trauma. They get to share this amazing museum with the world.”

The museum has been designed with sharing in mind. Several features of the museum will “work at a different speed than the one-hour, two-hour visit,” says Adjaye, including the Oprah Winfrey Theater but also a library that includes some 4 million Freedmen’s Bureau historical records for genealogy researchers. The primary physical feature of interest for local audiences may be its so-called “Porch.”

“The Porch is first and foremost going to be the first forecourt on the mall that will have a shaded respite,” Adjaye says. “It’s the idea of a welcome to the notion of the museum. The other [Smithsonian museums] have been predicated on the model of a palace of knowledge, a palace of enlightenment. That Southern exposure, the idea of porches—which are very important in the South and in the narrative of the African American community—seemed like a great way to turn over this idea of grand steps up to a podium.”

A magnet for black art in D.C.

Whether it is a consequence of the museum’s opening or a coincidence, Gates has been drawn closely into D.C.’s art world. The Hirshhorn named Gates as a trustee in September 2015, and he performed (with the Black Monks) at a New York gala for the museum’s 40th anniversary. The National Gallery of Art, which to date has previously organized just one exhibit by a living African-American artist (Kerry James Marshall), is assembling a show of Gates’s work that will open in 2017. For future “Processions” performances, Gates aims to draw on artists and dancers as well as jazz and gospel musicians from the D.C. area.

“We’re no longer bound by our cities,” Gates says. “While I’ve always lived in Chicago, I think D.C. is going to have much more of my time.”

Museum director Lonnie Bunch stands in front of one of the engraved walls of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington during a media preview tour. (Paul Holston/AP)

Other institutions beyond the Hirshhorn have mounted shows celebrating black artists. Several of the fall shows opening this month at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center focus on racial identity, including “It Takes a Nation: Art for Social Justice” and “Silos.” Amy Sherald’s Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), the winner of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, alongside a show of iconic jazz photos by Herman Leonard.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will introduce its permanent collection to viewers with a show that includes work by some D.C. artists. The museum commissioned Sam Gilliam, perhaps the city’s most famous artist, for a site-specific installation.

Jefferson Pinder, a Chicago-based artist with strong roots in D.C., is responsible for Capsule (Mothership)—a sculpture shaped like the Mercury spacecraft and made from the wood used for President Barack Obama’s inauguration platform. That work, part of the museum’s permanent collection, will be on view for the opening.

“A lot of people think about the African-American experience, but they don’t think about the African-American experience from an artist’s or a maker’s point of view,” Pinder says. “It’s new! We’re talking about in the last 10 years—not even—that people really started thinking about the presence of African Americans at the Smithsonian and the Mall. I just don’t think it’s been a constant.”

Holly Bass, another longtime D.C. artist, says that the museum is already raising the bar for other institutions in the area. She says that the museum bridges a disconnect that bothers her about other art collections: If the artists who are most important to her, artists such as Lorraine O’Grady, aren’t being collected by a museum, what’s the likelihood that her work is ever going to wind up there?

“I hope that it can bolster the careers of artists in the area, in the same way that the Studio Museum [in Harlem] has a way of bolstering careers,” Bass says. “For me, it’s super exciting to see my peers being collected and celebrated by the Smithsonian, both as local heroes and artists of national standing. I have conversations and it’s like, ‘I want my art in that museum.’ If you make it into that museum, you feel that you’ve arrived. It hasn’t even opened yet and there’s already this feeling. None of us have even seen the inside of it yet. And yet it’s on the wishlist.”

Then there is the simple and inevitable fact that the museum will focus on African-American artists who have been categorically overlooked by art museums on the National Mall. Pinder says that his sister used to drag him to the National Gallery and the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum when he was a kid; he grew disenchanted with the experience.

“As much as I say I love going down [to the Mall], I never went down there with the intention of being able to see black artists,” Pinder says. “I just went down there because it was compelling to me. Later on, as I got older, I’m like, ‘Jeez, who’s like me in the institution?’ It was a let-down. It was a good period of time that I was a little jaded.”

Celebrating the opening throughout the black community

First things first: The National Museum of African American History and Culture has to survive its opening. To that end, Sheldon Scott, an artist based in D.C., says that the institution is taking heroic strides to make sure that its audience feels included in the proceedings.

“What the museum’s doing is epic,” says Scott, who compares this museum opening to President Obama’s inauguration in terms of public excitement. “Obviously the level of interest and the desire to engage in this historic event is probably more than the museum can handle. It’s interesting and exciting to see all the different ways that the museum is trying to make outreach and this experience as real to the people who gave $1 or no money at all to the people who gave tens of millions to make this happen.”

Try as the museum might, it simply cannot handle the crushing demand for its opening. (One indicator, perhaps: The museum’s representatives did not respond to inquiries for this story.) The museum plans to use timed passes through December; it has extended its hours for its opening after its first raft of free timed passes were gobbled up within an hour.

The museum’s made efforts to ensure that people who can’t get a ticket won’t totally miss out on the festivities.  

“I’ve scheduled watch parties at churches throughout the District, at least one in each Ward, to watch the ribbon-cutting of the opening of the museum,” says E. Gail Anderson Holness, former pastor of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church. Holness is part of the D.C. Host Committee, a group assembled by D.C.’s African American Civil War Memorial and Museum to help coordinate opening events for the new museum at a local level.

Lonnie Bunch stands in-front of an art piece representing hip-hop group Public Enemy in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, during a media tour. (Paul Holston/AP)

Holness says that the D.C. Host Committee aims to connect visitors to other African American institutions in the city, including the Civil War Museum and the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. She says that the group’s efforts are aimed at locals as much as tourists. From Metropolitan AME Church in downtown to Allen Chapel AME Church in Ward 8, local churches will extend the museum’s opening to those who weren’t able to get their hands on the hottest ticket in town. (It’s not just black churches, either: Holness says that the Church of Scientology in Dupont Circle is one among many organizations that is hosting such watch parties.)

The museum’s role in D.C.’s arts community and black community is bound to evolve: As Gates puts it, “The notion of blackness, the notion of a people’s culture is always dynamic and alive.” Many programming decisions have yet to be made—by the institution but also by the people who visit it.

“People have a way of using space in ways that aren’t always intentional, not always by design,” Scott says. “Once the dust settles, when you don’t have a million people trying to get in and lines down the block, I think you could very well have some kind of daily conversation, daily engagement that happens in that space. That will be unique for the Mall.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.