A peek in America’s newest museum produces profound response

A veteran museum goer/connoisseur offers his reflections

The Washington Monument stands behind the new African American Museum. Photo by Stan Zimmerman
New ebony joins old ivory on the National Mall with the opening of the African-American History and Culture Museum. Photo by Stan Zimmerman

On Saturday, Sept. 24, President Barack Obama will open the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. A lot of ink and electrons will be spilled over the event — the structure has been more than a century in the making.

Last Sunday, I took the opportunity for a sneak peek. It changed my life.

If you distilled its essence and poured it into a whiskey bottle, you would have to call it Quiet Courage: a smooth potion with a kick strong enough to stop you in your tracks and reconsider your race, no matter what race that might be.

This is a different kind of museum on the National Mall. The others are full of objects and artifacts. A dinosaur here, a painting there, an important flag, an engine, a world-famous gem … stuff. And more stuff; buildings full of stuff.

Black people in the United States did not have the opportunity to collect a lot of “stuff” during the past 400 years. Artifacts from their first 300 years are rarities. Families who held on to them (a scrap of Kente cloth, perhaps) are understandably loath to volunteer it. items from the 20th century (“Whites Only!” signs and Black Power posters) are provocative but also banal. How to tell a deep and rich story without the usual museum “stuff”?

The National Museum of African-American History and Culture does it with the tales of people, not objects. A teacup that Harriet Tubman once used, the coat of the first black reporter hired by a white-owned newspaper, a bill of sale for a human being — these are springboards to spin historic tales, stories of achievers and survivors, maids and martyrs, people in halls of fame and people in prisons of squalor.

Bring your reading glasses and your hearing aids, because the guts of this place are on the wall labels and in videos, not “stuff” behind glass. What you read and hear, far more than the objects you see, will convey the centuries of love, care and hope needed to send each generation of African-Americans out into the United States of America to follow its dreams.

There appears no propaganda tilt. I worried going in about a “poor me” attitude. Walking out, I was braced by the Quiet Courage I had imbibed and the “loud courage” I had heard inside, when hearts opened and truth spilled out.

Museums evolve. They used to be giant “curiosity cabinets,” places to display unusual or precious items in specialized furniture or rooms hung with oil paintings cheek-to-jowl. We have improved, decade by decade. The NMAAHC (an acronym mouthful) is the latest hybrid of old and new, and it is a success.

Not only did my visit change my thinking about race. It also made me reconsider the mission and methodology of any museum of history. Black and white in this nation did not exist without each other. Our lives and our futures are intertwined in a creative tension forcing each to abide. Come to the National Mall and feel it for yourself.