“I think what’s really clear is that people need to find a place where they can understand history, that they can get the facts, places where they feel free to have the conversations. We’ve noticed a great movement towards the museum in a way that’s made the museum both a symbol and a metaphor,” National Museum of African American History and Culture Director Lonnie Bunch told NPR host Michele Martin, on the eve of the Museum’s first anniversary.
In this Sept. 21, 2017, photo, Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, talks about the museum’s first year and his vision for the future of the exhibits, in Washington. The museum is celebrating its first birthday just as popular as it was on its opening day (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
With more than one million visitors walking through its halls during its first 6 months (and nearly 3 million by their anniversary), the Museum is the most visited attraction among the Smithsonian ventures, and has been celebrated as both a storehouse of collective narratives, and a catalyst for additional learning.
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (AP Photo)
In a year’s time, the museum increased the number of items in its permanent collection to nearly 40,000, with roughly 3,000 objects on display in the museum’s 12 inaugural exhibitions. Additionally, the museum added several notable fine-art acquisitions, artworks by Black painter Bennie Andrews donated by the United Negro College Fund; and period photographs by James Van Der Zee, a distinguished portrait photographer. Artifacts from the AFRO are also housed in the museum.
The one-year anniversary celebration on Sept. 24 included two Community Day outdoor festivities – complete with cultural music, dance, and storytelling and a fundraising gala.
“This first anniversary gives us at the Smithsonian the opportunity to thank everyone for this incredible gift and for making it possible to continue our mission to help America grapple with history by seeing their past through an African American lens – and ultimately help Americans find healing and reconciliation,” Bunch said.
Mary Sands, a North Carolina-native, who visited the Museum during its one-year celebration, told the AFRO that despite having lived through many of the social movements documented in the Museum’s exhibits, she found herself unable to express the emotion and meaning behind the memories.
“I have great-grandchildren who have seen cotton fields and field workers, but not been able to make the connection between them and their ‘Nana,” Sands said. “When these babies saw the sharecropping house in the lower hall, it started a conversation that we’ve been having for three days now… They made the connection.”
Sands said that in making the connection, her great-grandchildren helped her peel back layers of embarrassment and shame, but also pride and patriotism.
“We are not all one thing as a race or even as a community, so it has been important exposing them to a portion of their history that other members of the family can fill in and explain,” Sands said. “That is the gift the Museum provides, an opportunity to show we are proud Americans.”