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National museum curator seeks to ‘make America better’


By Puakea Olaisha Anderson
Special to the Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — During a recent visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, told Detroiters the new museum will “help shape America’s identity, educate new generations and illuminate dark corners (of the country’s history).”

The historian, curator and educator highlighted the importance of understanding African American history as well as African history for all Americans.

“My goal for this whole project is to make America better,” he said.

The NMAAHC is the Smithsonian Institute’s newest museum, established in 2003 by an Act of Congress, making it the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum.

It is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture, according to its Web site.

Its purpose is to provide a space where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape the United States.

The NMAAHC Web site says it will be a place that “transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.”

Located on the National Mall is Washington, D.C., construction for the $500 million project began earlier this year and is expected to be completed and ready to open in the summer of 2015.

Under Bunch’s leadership, the NCAAHC’s gallery opened an exhibition in January titled “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise,” which features more than 100 images created by one of the premier African American studios in the country and one of the longest-running Black businesses in Washington. The newest gallery exhibition is titled, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.”

Bunch explained that funds for the museum came from both the government and private sector. So far, he says, he’s raised $300 million, $180 million from Congress and $120 million from private entities.

During his talk at the DIA, titled Waiting for the ancestors to smile, Bunch spoke to the cultural relevance of and for African Americans.

“You can’t understand who you are until you understand the struggle of triumphs of African Americans,” he told listeners. “This is an opportunity to help young people understand that anything is possible, because more than anything else, African Americans believed in America when America didn’t believe in them.”

The museum, which can trace its roots back to 1915 when a group of Black veterans proposed that a memorial to African Americans be constructed at the same location, will reflect on the enslavement of African people, African American inventors, as well as African Americans influence in the military, sports and music.

Dr. Robert Perkins, an African American retired oral surgeon who attended the talk, supports the idea and concept of the National Museum.

“I think the whole idea is great; it highlights a whole history of Black people, what they have achieved and experienced,” he told the Michigan Citizen. “This will be an immense task.”

Robert Brewer, who also attended the talk, said: “In order to identify who we are, we (African Americans) must know our past history. We are a people who started before the ancient Greeks in Rome and we are a people who built pyramids, tombs and temples.”

Overall, Bunch shared the museum’s plans to realize its mission of inspiring a broader understanding of African American history and culture in a national and international context.

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