“The history of America is too big for one building.”

Picture of Frederick Douglass from the National Geographic story about the A-A Museum of History & Culture
AMBROTYPE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS This portrait of one of the most famous abolitionists, orators, and writers of the 19th century will be on exhibit in the museum. The former slave was the era’s most photographed person. Understanding the power of images to convey dignity and alter how African Americans were seen, he frequently sat for portraits.

“The history of America is too big for one building.” – Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Recently, I had a conversation about the variety of museums in my hometown of Capitol Hill and about the wonderful exhibits surrounding the Washington Mall. The person I spoke with had recently visited, they shared, and they loved it. But they didn’t visit the African American museum because they didn’t like the idea. Why? Because, “I mean, we don’t have a museum for White people,” they contested. “The rest of the museums are diverse,” they said; “they have pictures, figures and representations of minority groups,” they said.

Do they?

They don’t — not in a historically accurate manner. As anyone who has taken the time to question their elementary history education might know, history has been white-washed. The Washington Mall has a number of museums, such as the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, the American Indian Museum, many, many Galleries of Art and a number of others. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is relatively new: it opened in the Fall of 2016 and has been a hot commodity since — stirring up both interest and backlash. This museum depicts history in a way that it has not been widely taught; it acknowledges the achievements of Black American’s as well as historical oppression and inequity, much of which persists today. The exterior was purposefully constructed as a bold, divergent representation of African American culture and stands out from any other museum on
the Mall. Inside, it details a neglected history — one that some of us may have learned snippets of during Black History Month (February, i.e., the shortest month of the year), which is America’s annual acknowledgement of Black achievement and history; the time of year that we take interest in the historical experiences and contributions of Black American’s.

What the National Museum of African American History and Culture does best, perhaps, is that it encourages race-talk — year round.

Indeed, there are no museums exclusively depicting “White American History and Culture” — but have no fear: White American history is reflected in nearly every other sphere of America, and in surrounding museums and monuments. The white-washed history that we have been taught and continue to teach invalidates the experiences of minority groups and prevents any chance for a conversation, thereby thwarting our understanding. This same history that ignores and denies the oppression of minority groups is perpetuated in the very notion of “Making America Great Again.”

American history has been memorialized in the context of White supremacy and the denial of a pervasively oppressive country. This denial is particularly dangerous as it is one- sided; We ignore the intersection of race in every facet of America: from our history to our culture, our economy and so forth. We call ourselves a melting-pot, simultaneously denying the injection of any culture that we perceive as inferior. The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened their doors to open our eyes. For the most well-intentioned people, race-talk can be uncomfortable — though it’s necessary. To recognize the reality of race and racism is the only way to progress and the facilitation of active dialogue surrounding race, historically and today, is one way to foster equality. When will we recognize history for what it is?

For a generous sneak-peek at the museum, see this article by Michelle Norris published in National Geographic in 2016.

2 thoughts on ““The history of America is too big for one building.”

  1. I recently visited the Steel Stacks in Bethlehem and found the highlighted narrative to be white-washed, in a similar way that you’re referring to. While in the fine-print of posters there was acknowledgement that Mexican and Puerto-Rican immigrants were key members to the day-to-day operations of the Bethlehem Steel, they were not represented in photos or displays. So often it seems like our country tries to credit white people with building this country, where from a historical standpoint that doesn’t prove true.

  2. As I was in D.C. last semester, I was able to attend the National Mall many times, especially the Museum of African American History. Attending this museum was so overwhelming for me, simply because so much of the lived experiences for blacks are left out. This museum forms a true narrative in many different settings (music, tv, slave history, political, sports, etc.) It is scary to see how many museums offer the White narrative and leave out the many others who have contributed to the formation of America. Similarly, in one of the museums that I attended there was a new exhibit called “Many Voices, One Nation.” In this exhibit there is a timeline of all the minority groups, many that I had no clue about, that played a role in shaping and forming our country. Much of the reasons why we are here today stems from the involvement of minority groups. Thus, this opened my eyes to look beyond just the black narrative that is not taught, but also those narratives involving many other races.

    It is frustrating to see the backlash the African American Museum is receiving because it is something so beautiful and impactful that everyone should see. However, only those with motivation and desire are the ones attending, and is that enough to make a change? Is that enough to influence others? Will this “new” history being taught effect how history is actually taught in the classroom? However, the presence of this museum is vital, because as you say it creates a conversation all year. Race will not be only talked about once a month, but 12 months, which is an important piece to acknowledge.

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