Smithsonian Picks Notable Spot for Its Museum of Black History

Dear Coalition Friends:

Yesterday, the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents chose a site on the Mall near the Washington Monument for its new National Museum of African-American History and Culture. They rejected another site on the Mall, the now-empty Arts and Industries Building, preferred by the Commission of Fine Arts. They also rejected the Banneker Overlook site just south of the Mall and preferred by the National Capital Planning Commission, the National Park Service, and the Coalition.

We provide below the front page story from the New York Times (the quote from me best captures the Coalition’s position), and links to stories in the Washington Post, DC Examiner, and Washington Times.

We understood the desire to be “on the Mall” and proposed that the Banneker site be the first step in the expansion of the Third Century Mall. We submitted a sketch showing the museum just east end of the Benjamin Banneker Memorial (at the Overlook) and a large municipal parking lot to the west, with a broad pedestrian bridge over Maine Avenue connecting to an amphitheater at the waterfront. The chosen “Monument site,” by contrast, fronts on three busy rush-hour roads, will provide no parking, and will be limited architecturally so as not to detract from views, vistas, and the Mall’s main icons. But it is on the Mall.

The National Museum of the American Indian was purportedly the “last” museum on the Mall. Congress passed a moratorium in 2003, declaring the Mall “completed.” Now Congress will be asked to make another exception to the moratorium, proving once again that current policies are failing. A Latino Museum is now being considered; new projects arise every day.

Clearly, now is the time for an independent, national McMillan-type Commission to create a new, visionary Mall master plan that includes Mall expansion onto adjoining federal and public lands, as proposed by the Coalition.

Washington Post story
Washington Times story

DC Examiner story

The New York Times — January 31, 2006

Smithsonian Picks Notable Spot for Its Museum of Black History


WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 – After nearly a century of political infighting and delay, the Smithsonian Institution on Monday selected a prominent space on the Mall near the Washington Monument as the site of its National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

Supporters of the project, including many black cultural, political and academic leaders, who labored for years to have the museum approved, greeted the selection by the Board of Regents, the institution’s governing body, with elation.

High-profile advocates of the museum, the institution’s first dedicated to a comprehensive study of the black American experience, had told Smithsonian officials that any site off the Mall would be viewed as a slight to African-Americans.

In September 2004 the National Museum of the American Indian opened to much fanfare and high visibility on the eastern edge of the Mall near the Capitol.

Some groups responded to the announcement on Monday with disappointment, arguing that the project would clutter the Mall, the grassy expanse stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol.

Smithsonian officials said the vote on the site was not unanimous but would not give details. Officials said they hoped to open the new museum within the next decade.

“My first task for tomorrow is to stop smiling,” said Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the museum.

The selection of the five-acre site allows Mr. Bunch to move forward with choosing an architect, as well as to begin raising money and acquiring collections. Cost estimates for the museum, the 19th in the Smithsonian complex, range from $300 million to $500 million. Fifty percent of the cost will be paid by the federal government, the other half by private sources.

The building will probably be at least 350,000 square feet, roughly the same size as the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian officials said.

Mr. Bunch, former director of curatorial affairs for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, left a position as president of the Chicago Historical Society in July to lead the new project. He said it was “quite fitting that the experience of African-Americans take its place among the museums and monuments that make the National Mall a world-renowned location.”

Fund-raising has already started and will be greatly aided by the site selection, Mr. Bunch said.

Lawrence M. Small, secretary of the Smithsonian, said the institution was committed to building “a remarkable museum that will inspire generations of future visitors from around the world with truly American stories of perseverance, courage, talent and triumph.”

Richard D. Parsons, chairman and chief executive of Time Warner Inc. and a co-chairman of the museum’s advisory council, said he planned to use America Online, which Time Warner owns, to create a virtual connection between the museum and potential donors, by offering links to the kinds of material and artifacts that the museum will contain.

“We are going to try to hit this at several levels,” Mr. Parsons said in a telephone interview after the announcement. “We will reach out to the entire corporate community and the philanthropic community, but also just folks at very large levels and at the $5 and $10 level. And you can use online communities to reach these people in new and unique ways.”

Supporters said the highly visible spot, adjacent to the Washington Monument across the street from the National Museum of American History, acknowledged the centrality of the African-American experience in the country’s development.

Efforts to build a national museum of black history began in the early 1900’s but were repeatedly thwarted by political and social opposition well into the 1990’s. In 1994 Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, passionately blocked Senate passage of a bill authorizing the museum, saying Congress should not have to “pony up” for such efforts.

“Thank God,” said Robert L. Wilkins, a Washington lawyer who headed the site selection committee on a presidential commission formed in 2002 to make recommendations for the museum to Congress. “Even though the building has not yet been constructed, I feel like we have finally fulfilled this long quest in an honorable and appropriate way.”

Many opponents of the site had lobbied heavily for one south of the Mall, arguing that the new museum would help bring about a much-needed physical and psychological expansion of the Mall beyond its current boundaries.

“It is a lost opportunity,” said Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a group founded in 2000 to oppose the location of the World War II Memorial between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. “We believe that there was a possibility here to make this museum not the last museum on the 20th-century Mall, but the first museum on the 21st-century Mall. It could have motivated the nation to move the Mall into the future.”

Detractors said they had long suspected they were waging a difficult battle.

The advisory council – which includes numerous influential black leaders, including E. Stanley O’Neal, chairman and chief executive of Merrill Lynch & Company; Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television; and Oprah Winfrey – recommended the monument site to the Board of Regents in early December. They based their recommendation on a review of a 198-page engineering evaluation, commissioned by the Smithsonian, of four potential sites. Two were on the Mall; two were not.

“We were very clear and unanimous in our recommendation,” said Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund and a member of the advisory council. “The site articulates not just the kind of recognition the museum will receive, but ultimately what kind of recognition African-Americans will receive for their contributions to the country.”

In an interview, Mr. Johnson said he had told Mr. Small that he would resign from the advisory council if the board chose a site off the Mall.

“The symbolism of denying African-Americans the same treatment as museums like the Museum of the American Indian, the Holocaust Museum and all of the great museums on the Mall would have been too much,” he said. “To have relegated this museum to another site, when people are looking to it to answer everything from the need for an apology for slavery to reparations, would have been the ultimate dismissal.”

The 17-member board includes several politicians, as well as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Vice President Dick Cheney was the only member not in attendance for the announcement, made in a lecture hall near the Castle, the Smithsonian’s main administrative building.

President Bush, who signed the bill authorizing the museum in December 2003, also endorsed a site on the Mall last February at a Black History Month event at the White House. “We have a chance to build a fantastic museum, right here in the heart of Washington, D.C., on the Mall,” the president told those in attendance, including Mr. Small.

Mr. Bunch said in an interview that he awoke at 4 a.m. on Monday, the day of the announcement, in a fit of excitement and anxiety over the vote.

“I have always thought that the honor of creating this museum would make any place that it is located sacred ground,” he said. “My focus has just been let me know what the decision is, and off to work I will go.”

He is quickly hiring staff members to fill his temporary offices, near the site south of the Mall that the board rejected.

Lakiesha Carr contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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