Race can be a polarizing topic in a lot of ways, but curators at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture are expecting the new addition on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to bring people together.
Scheduled to open in September, the museum’s exhibits will tell the stories of blacks in America, from enslavement to emancipation and beyond. Curator Mary Elliott says that everyone who visits will be able to relate to the artifacts, history and culture stored inside.
Few know what it’s like to live in a slave cabin, like the one from South Carolina that sits in the lower galleries of the building, but maybe visitors can relate to the struggle to improve one’s status and work toward a better life. That desire is part of the human experience and something that transcends race, nationality or era. These are the types of universal themes inside NMAAHC, and to which most will be able to connect, not just African Americans.
“It is told through the African-American lens, but we did not leave out anyone. We also talk about people who are not black and how they wrestled with this moral question,” Elliott says. “Everyone should be able to see themselves [in these exhibits].”
According to Elliott, a member of the team who helped move the slave cabin into the building log by log, NMAAHC has already helped bring people together and start a much-needed conversation about race.
When the curators visited Edisto Island, S.C., to talk to the community about the cabin, the descendants of the slaves and those of the slaveholders were in attendance.
“There was a young lady with beautiful brown skin and piercing blue eyes. There was another white woman with piercing blue eyes,” says Elliott. Though the black woman, Arleen, believed that they were related, she did not want to connect with her relative, Carol, whose ancestry seemed to lead directly back to slaveholders. Elliott says that she encouraged communication between Arleen and Carol, and it turned out that Carol had information about Arleen’s branch of the family tree that Arleen never knew.
“A lot of times people will think, ‘I don’t want to talk about this,’ but it’s all in how you approach it,” said Elliott. “I think it will be easier for people to look at an object and talk about an object than to confront each other, and I hope that’s what will happen.”
If seeing an object inspires conversation, there will be plenty to talk about after walking through the NMAAHC. From a Tuskegee Airmen training plane and objects from a sunken slave ship to Althea Gibson’s tennis racket and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, the venue will be chock-full of artifacts meant to inspire and cause reflection. There is even a Contemplative Court, described as a “resting place,” where families can discuss some of the themes that resonate through the exhibits.
Visitors will be encouraged to leave their thoughts and reflections about the museum, which prominently features important voices and ideas from the past. The Wall of Freedom includes quotes from iconic figures such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman and James Baldwin—their words practically etched in stone.
“All along the way, African Americans have been in dialogue about what freedom, liberty and slavery means,” says Elliott. “They have completely contributed to this story of the nation.”
When the museum opens in September, those contributions will be represented in 12 inaugural exhibits, including “A Century in the Making,” which chronicles the story of NMAAHC; sports and military exhibits in the community gallery; and a culture gallery, which includes musical and visual arts.
Elliott expects the variety of artifacts and topics to draw people of all backgrounds. They may come because of their appreciation for “black music” but stay for the stories of tragedy and triumph that inspired those beloved songs.
“There are a lot of Americans who say this is a story I’m interested in,” museum Director Lonnie Bunch told The Root last year. “What’s been so powerful has been it’s been more or equal excitement from those outside of the U.S. For many, their first intro to America was through blacks … Seventy percent of all Americans, regardless of race, want to come to this museum.”