At new museum, relics and treasures reveal U.S. history through African-American lens

Email a Friend

A woman passes a display depicting the Mexico Olympic protest during a media preview at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, U.S., September 14, 2016. The museum will open to the public on September 24. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque    FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. - RTSNR10

Watch Video

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the jewel in the Smithsonian Museum crown opens this weekend on the National Mall.

President Obama will be on hand to dedicate the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We take you on a tour and show how it all came to be.

JOYCE BAILEY, Museum Donor: We can see she has her camera right there. That was one of her photographic days.

Joyce Bailey’s legacy turned out to be worth more than money. Her mother, Lois Alexander Lane left her a treasure trove from the museum she created, the Harlem Institute of Fashion, costumes, dresses sewn and worn by slaves, celebrities and by civil rights icons.

One of the things I think people are surprised to know, or to remember, is that Rosa Parks was a seamstress.

JOYCE BAILEY: Yes, she was. She was actually carrying the dress that the museum now has on the day that she was arrested. It’s a beautiful yellow with brown stripes in it. It’s beyond belief. You really just have to see it.

GWEN IFILL: Beginning this weekend, thousands of people will stream into the brand-new National Museum of African American History and Culture to see elements of Bailey’s collection and countless other priceless items.

There is this, an airplane flown cross-country to the museum once piloted by the all-black Tuskegee Airmen, the casket of 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched in 1955 for whistling at a white woman, the writings of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, shackles discovered on a sunken ship that brought hundreds of slaves to America, and from a South Carolina plantation, a fully restored slave cabin, the dress Marian Anderson wore when she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, and costumes from “The Wiz,” the all-black Broadway musical based on “The Wizard of Oz,” donated from Joyce Bailey’s collection.

This is as an amazing place, chockful of the expected and the expected. One thing missing, major artifacts from the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. His family apparently decided to hold onto some of the most famous memorabilia, including the Bible that President Obama used to take the oath of office in 2013.

In any case, it fell to museum director Lonnie Bunch and his band of curators to sort through what turned into a rush of donations.

LONNIE BUNCH, Director,  Museum of African American History and Culture: But, when I saw them, I said, we are going to tell that story. And I just love, from “The Wiz,” I just love how they look. I just think they’re so distinctive. They obviously speak volumes about Geoffrey Holder.

GWEN IFILL: The designer.

LONNIE BUNCH: The designer. And, plus, they’re just so beautiful.

GWEN IFILL: It was a big moment at the time.

LONNIE BUNCH: Absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: From sobering memorabilia like rebellion leader Nat Turner’s Bible, to 20th century musical memories, Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac, and Parliament Funkadelic’s iconic Mothership, here lit up and sheathed in plastic in preparation for the opening.

LONNIE BUNCH: During concerts, it would come down, and George Clinton would get out. So it’d be this notion that he was from another planet.


GWEN IFILL: Which he kind of was.

LONNIE BUNCH: Which he still is.

GWEN IFILL: The $540 million project, a century in the making, and the first green museum on the National Mall, captures the sweep of African-American history.

So, what do we have here?

LONNIE BUNCH: This is one of my great treasures. What I love is what my staff is able to find. And this is a playbill from Newcastle, England, in 1857 that is from Ira Aldridge’s career. Ira Aldridge, the great black thespian that couldn’t get jobs in the United States as a great actor, classical actor, had to go to Europe.

GWEN IFILL: Othello, who everyone now thinks of as a character always played by a black actor.

LONNIE BUNCH: Exactly. But it was always in blackface.

GWEN IFILL: Galleries are devoted to breakthroughs in sports and performance.

LONNIE BUNCH: The joy of Prince, and I love the Michael Jackson fedora. I just capture that. And, obviously, the “Soul Train” costume.

GWEN IFILL: “Soul Train” costume is a little alarming.


LONNIE BUNCH: Well, it is, because we thought that was cool.

GWEN IFILL: We. I don’t know about we.


GWEN IFILL: Speak for yourself.


GWEN IFILL: This is cool.

Bunch, a former president of the Chicago Historical Society, shepherded the project to completion, wooing Congress for half the money, and soliciting private donations from millionaires like Oprah Winfrey and philanthropist David Rubenstein.

But he also appealed to individuals, families, churches, fraternities and sororities, who handed over gems like James Baldwin’s inkwell and Malcolm X’s tape recorder.

Advance tickets flew out the door, 5,000 of them in 18 minutes one day.

On this journey you have been to get to this point with this museum, what has been the biggest surprise for you along the way?

LONNIE BUNCH: I think I have been stunned by the excitement and the way people really care. There are times I will walk in an airport and people will just sort of give me the thumbs up, or I will walk down the street and church ladies will come to me and say they’re praying for me.

So, I think the fact that this means so much to so many people has been the biggest surprise for me.

GWEN IFILL: As with other Smithsonian museums, one building cannot begin to hold its collection.

Conservator Antje Neumann has helped preserve the collection at the museum’s facility in a Washington suburb.

ANTJE NEUMANN, Conservator: There’s always the balance between preservation and exhibition, and allowing the public to see the national treasures, and then also balancing that with preserving it for future generations.

It’s lovely to have a place to highlight the struggles, the causes and the progression that many people and the contributions many people have done in this country.

GWEN IFILL: It falls to Neumann to repair Shaquille O’Neal’s size 20 shoe, to prepare a stool from Muhammad Ali’s gym, to restore worn pages of the first book of black poetry, and to spiff up funk singer Bootsy Collins’ bright yellow leather costume.

ANTJE NEUMANN: It just needs a bit — a little bit of cleaning in order to make it ready for presentation, as it has been used a lot on stage.

GWEN IFILL: Collins’ outfit occupies a place of honor inside the new building, which is a work of art itself.

The corona, the signature exterior feature, is made of 230 tons of bronze-colored aluminum panels, 3,600 in all.

Lead architect Phil Freelon oversaw the building’s striking design.

PHIL FREELON, Lead Architect: Many of the buildings on the Mall are marble, granite, concrete, lighter in color. This building has a variation in how it appears. So, on certain days, in certain lighting conditions, it can be very vibrant and bright. And other times of the day or in the evening, it is darker. So there is this interesting dynamic of changing appearance of the building.

GWEN IFILL: Within view, the Washington Monument and even a glimpse of the White House, which Michelle Obama famously noted was itself built by slaves.

Bunch says this makes race an integral part of the American experience.

But, in this country, we are so nervous about talking about race, about engaging. We keep having national conversations about race, and it seems that this building itself is a big conversation. Do you — did you encounter along the way any resistance to the notion that we talk about Americans only by race?

LONNIE BUNCH: I think there was fear that we would be a place that might be divisive, that people wouldn’t want to talk about race, and that we would force them to talk about race.

I think there was a great concern that, would this just be a museum by black people for black people? And I think we had to counter that, both by the kind of stories we told, by the way we tried to say, this is a story of America through an African-American lens.

GWEN IFILL: Joyce Bailey’s mother could not have foreseen this day, but she did see the value of preserving black history.

Lois Alexander passed away in 2007, leaving her daughter with a window into history.

But didn’t you feel a little emotional about letting it go?

JOYCE BAILEY: I was very happy about letting it go, because I knew my mother’s legacy would continue.

GWEN IFILL: Curators think about legacy too. Lonnie Bunch is still looking ahead.

LONNIE BUNCH: I want to make sure that curators 50 years from now can tell the story of today, if that’s what they want to tell.

So, I hope this museum will continue to evolve, continue to change, because it really has to be a place that is the great convener, that can bring anybody and everybody into a conversation around race.

GWEN IFILL: From groundbreaking in 2012 to open doors this week, America preserved, America celebrated, right in the nation’s front yard.

Online, you can watch our full extended interview with museum director Lonnie Bunch.


The post At new museum, relics and treasures reveal U.S. history through African-American lens appeared first on PBS NewsHour.