The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) marks its fifth anniversary this month with a focus on living history, digital programs, and collaborations and community. The Archives is sharing some born-digital items that document the Museum’s history from four different collections. These objects represent some milestones for NMAAHC including: an early snapshot of the Museum’s Twitter account; images from the inaugural exhibition planning meeting and construction; and a video excerpt about the building. All these Archives’ collection items tell the important story of how the Museum evolved into what it is today – essentially the Museum’s living history.
More than 7.5 million have visited in-person since the 2016 opening of the striking building, enclosed in a three-tier “Corona” made from ornamental bronze-colored aluminum lattice, near the Washington Monument. Another feature is the covered 175-foot porch that serves as the main entrance.
Though the Museum has continued to be extremely popular among visitors since its opening, the path to its creation on the National Mall spanned generations and decades.
Black Civil War veterans first began to advocate for a space to commemorate African American contributions to the United States on the National Mall in 1915. The veterans formed the Committee of Colored Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic to offer support to African American veterans visiting segregated Washington, D.C., during a parade for the 50th anniversary of the Civil War on Pennsylvania Avenue. The committee collected funds during the event and created the National Memorial Association, which sought a national building that recognized the contributions and achievements of African Americans.
In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed a law to create a commission for a museum. However, the stock market crash prevented the group from raising funds, and the U.S. Department of the Interior acquired the commission’s work.
Many continued to advocate for a commemorative space on the National Mall for years. Members of Congress introduced bills in the late 1960s regarding the creation of a national museum, but they did not pass. Rep. John Lewis started introducing legislation annually in Congress in 1988 to create a National African American Heritage Museum and Memorial within the Smithsonian. More bills were introduced and more commissions drafted reports suggesting possible locations and a preliminary planning program. Finally, the Presidential Commission published “The Time Has Come, Report to the President and Congress,” an implementation plan for NMAAHC, on April 2, 2003.
Finally, the Museum was established by an act by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2003. As planning took shape, current Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III was named founding director in 2005.
The Board of Regents announced the building site in January 2006, and the groundbreaking occurred six years later. The building design was created by four firms that formed Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup for the project.
In a video clip about the building, Bunch said, “This building will be on the Mall for 400, 500 years … Part of what I’m really looking for is a building that is signature. That people will say, ‘Oh, I’m glad that’s on the Mall.’”
The grand opening was September 24, 2016, with a dedication ceremony that included remarks from the late Congressman Lewis, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and Director Bunch, as well as performances by Angélique Kidjo, Patti LaBelle, and Stevie Wonder.
- Celebrating One Year and Many More to Come: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lisa Fthenakis, The Bigger Picture
- The Definitive Story of How the National Museum of African American History and Culture Came to Be, Lonnie Bunch, Smithsonian Magazine
- Chronology of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution
- Archived web captures of National Museum of African American History and Culture website, Archive-It service
- National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution Archives