The Smithsonian breaks ground Wednesday on the last available space along the National Mall in Washington for the only national museum dedicated exclusively to Americans of African heritage.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture will rise a stone’s throw from the towering obelisk that honors George Washington, the slave-owning first president of the United States.
Barack Obama, the first black president, is among the VIPs scheduled to attend the long-awaited launch of construction, which coincides with the final days of the nation’s annual Black History Month.
Inspired in design by traditional Yoruban art and architecture, the $500 million venue — authorized by Congress in 2003 — is co-conceived by Tanzanian-born, London-based architect David Adjaye.
Its director Lonnie Bunch has been busy collecting artifacts to fill it, from a shawl given to 19th century abolitionist Harriet Tubman by Britain’s Queen Victoria to a red Cadillac once driven by rock pioneer Chuck Berry.
Bunch has also reached out to the estimated 350 other African American museums across the United States, many of them struggling rural operations, to reassure them that the mammoth Smithsonian project will not spell their doom.
“I feel they have the confidence of the African American museum community,” Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums, told AFP on Tuesday from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Black welcomed early indications that the museum will cast a spotlight on the long-overlooked links between African Americans and their ancestral origins in west Africa.
“This is a different type of African American museum… It’s not just a museum that speaks to African Americans,” he said. “It’s a museum that’s going to speak to the world.”
Several other Smithsonian premises already line the National Mall, including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of the American Indian.
The Smithsonian also runs a small African American community museum in a one-time movie theater in Washington’s little-visited Anacostia district.