The National Museum of African American History and Culture, established by law in 2003, is the culmination of decades of efforts to commemorate African American history. Although the US Congress passed legislation in 1929 to create a national commission to build a memorial, the project was not funded. The US Interior Department took over the commission’s work, but the memorial did not come to fruition. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 galvanized interest again. An initiative by Tom Mack, president of Tourmobile Sightseeing, a DC shuttle tour company, led to a 1986 Joint Resolution sponsored by Representatives Mickey Leland of Texas and John Lewis of Georgia and Senator Paul Simon of Illinois “to encourage and support” private efforts to build a memorial and a museum in Washington, DC.
In 1988 and 1989, new bills were introduced in the Congress to create a National African American Heritage Museum and Memorial within the Smithsonian Institution. In 1991, a Smithsonian blue-ribbon commission recommended the creation of a national museum devoted to African Americans to collect, analyze, research, and organize exhibitions on a scale and definition to those of the major museums devoted to other aspects of American life. The commission recommended that the museum be temporarily located in the Arts and Industries Building until a new, larger facility could be built, but the legislation stalled amid controversy about funding and the appropriateness of the site.
In 2001, a new bipartisan coalition of Representatives John Lewis and J. C. Watts, Jr., and Senators Sam Brownback and Max Cleland renewed efforts to establish a National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) within the Smithsonian Institution. Renewed questions about funding and feasibility of using the Arts and Industries Building resulted in the passage of P.L. 107-106 on December 28, 2001, which established the NMAAHC Plan for Action Presidential Commission to develop a feasible plan to move forward with the museum.
In April of 2003, the Commission released its first report, The Time Has Come, Report to the President and Congress after a yearlong study and more than fifty national and local meetings. This document included suggestions for several possible locations and a preliminary planning program that determined an area of 350,000 square feet represented a reasonable size for the museum. In September of 2003, the Commission issued its Final Site Report which presented detailed analysis of the possible sites for the museum and recommended the Capitol Grounds site, with the Washington Monument site as an alternative. In December 2003, Congress enacted The NMAAHC Act, P.L. 108-184, establishing a museum within the Smithsonian Institution to be known as the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The act required the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents to select a final site.
Current Projects and Future Planning
In October of 2004, the Board of Regents appointed nineteen members to the National Museum of African American History and Culture Council, to serve as advisors to the project. On March 14, 2005, Lonnie G. Bunch III, then director of the Chicago Historical Society, was appointed Founding Director of the museum. In January of 2006, the Board of Regents selected the site on the National Mall near the Washington Monument on the southwest corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, Northwest. For the next two years, staff completed extensive planning for the museum building, and an Environmental and Historic Preservation Report in May of 2008. The design team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group was selected in April 2009 from among twenty-two entries submitted by architectural firms worldwide. Completed designs are expected in April of 2012, with construction completed in December of 2015.
In 2006, museum staff presented their plans to the public at the Smithsonian Inside Out program at American Folklife Festival on the National Mall. In 2007, museum staff completed their inaugural exhibit, Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits, at the National Museum of American History, followed by Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment in 2010, and The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Where Art and History Intersect and For All the World to See in 2011. In 2008, the museum initiated the Save Our African American Treasures Program, with workshops on preservation of historical materials for African American communities across the country.
- Chronology of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Bibliography of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Historic Images of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
- National Museum of African American History and Culture Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Image Highlights of the National Museum of African American History and Culture from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Additional Records and Collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture from across the Smithsonian
- National Museum of African American History and Culture’s History Collections
- National Museum of African American History and Culture Website
- Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative
- National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
- National Museum of African American History and Culture Memory Book Project
Today in Smithsonian History
James Smithson, the Smithsonian's founding donor, dies in Genoa, Italy. He is buried in the Protestant cemetery, about a mile west of Genoa, on a high elevation overlooking the town of Sampierdarena. His will provides for the creation of an institution for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."More
Did you know...
That Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, was a major advocate for the National Museum of African American History and Culture Museum?