On March 25, 2010, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, III visited the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the inaugural W.E.B. Du Bois Center symposium where he discussed “The Challenge of Building a National Museum”. Dr. Bunch was appointed director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, or NMAAHC, in 2005, two years after President Bush had signed a bill to approve the museum’s construction on the National Mall. Though Dr. Bunch’s many historical positions throughout the years have helped him gain a wealth of knowledge, the difficulty of truly conveying the importance of the NMAAHC was a topic still left somewhat unanswered. What sorts of things should one expect from this museum? How would such a historical monument to American history, not just African American history, differ from others? The answers to such questions remain both intriguing, and even shocking.
Dr. Bunch’s insistence that the museum allow visitors to tap their feet to famous African American musicians, such as hip hop artists he admitted to not knowing, was coupled with a need to understand and remember historical figures who we don’t know nearly enough about. Among artifacts donated to the museum by author Charles L. Blockson -after he had been willed the items by a deceased great grand-niece of Harriet Tubman- were 39 objects of significance relating to Tubman. The donation included her hymnal, and a beige silk and linen shawl given to her by Queen Victoria,as reported by the Washington Post. It is the same shall Tubman was donning in the famous portrait of her. The crowd that gathered in the Cape Cod Lounge on March 25 collectively gasped in appreciation of such a historic artifact. In addition to the shawl and hymnal donated by Blockson were three photographs of Harriet Tubman’s funeral, with hand written descriptions by one of her relatives on the back. They can be seen on the Smithsonian’s website.
It’s not only Tubman’s artifacts that have come to the attention of the museum’s director either. Dr. Bunch told his audience of the proposed recovery of a slave ship in the sea near Cuba. Also, the casket that formerly held the body of Emmett Till, a black man murdered in 1955 by the white relatives of a woman he has supposedly whistled at, was donated to the museum on the 54th anniversary of Till’s death, as reported by the Smithsonian. In 2005, Till’s body was exhumed for an autopsy and reburied in another casket. The donation of the former is one that “tells a story, lots of stories”, said Till’s cousin Simeon Wright, to the Smithsonian when explaining why the family decided to donate the glass-topped casket.
Dr. Bunch’s appearance at the University of Massachusetts is not the only interaction that the director of the museum has had with those looking to educate themselves on the nature of the museum, however. The U.S. Embassy Trinidad and Tobago published a note on Facebook detailing Dr. Bunch’s search for “treasures” of African American culture. It was a small part of the “Save Our African American Treasures” program launched by the NMAAHC in 2008. The program, which travels to various U.S. Cities, encourages U.S. citizens to bring items in their possession for evaluation by experts who then choose whether or not to accept them for display in the museum.
Dr. Bunch’s mission for the museum’s construction on the national mall has been hard fought and arduous, but considering the outpouring of donations and support, it seems to have been well worth it. The museum’s scheduled opening in 2015 will bring to a close the heart wrenching and emotionally vocative journey of attaining pieces of African American culture that can relay the history of America, and not just an aspect of it.
Through such tools as the online memory book, set up by the museum for photos and stories to be shared, those waiting for the scheduled opening can find a way to interact and share their memories with others, while some who look for a higher understanding can view and comment on pieces of history.
Watch “Remembering Mr. Johnson” to learn more about the necessity of building this national museum.