The National Mall: Making Space for the African American History Museum

By Lisa Benton-Short

On September 24, 2016 thousands gathered on the National Mall to celebrate the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Inside the new 400,000 square foot museum are some 36,000 artifacts that share truths about America’s past and tell stories about four-hundred years of black life in America.   As much as what we will learn and experience because of what is inside the museum, the mere presence of this museum on the Mall makes a difference…it’s all about location, location, location.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (Photograph by Lisa Benton-Short)
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (Photograph by Lisa Benton-Short)

The Mall is a stage for our democracy, a place we tell our national story. Being “on the Mall” makes a powerful statement about a shared identity, about belonging and about recognition. It confers national legitimacy. It’s the reason that each year dozens of groups lobby for their memorial or museum to be on the Mall, despite the dearth of space available since Congress deemed it a “substantially completed work of civic art” in 2003.

Yet, in the last several years, the Mall has made “space”, both metaphorically and literally, for African Americans, including the recently completed 2014 Memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. Because of these new additions, the Mall better reflects our national history that includes a wider, more racially and ethnically diverse society. Visitors to the new museum are reminded of this by the quote from Langston Hughes: “I, too, am America.”

It is imperative that we continue to be able to tell our nation’s unfolding story with new memorials and museums. And that will require some visionary planning and expansion of the National Mall. That’s why the National Mall Coalition has been pressing for advancing the great planning legacies of the past two centuries – L’enfant and McMillan – to create a new third century plan that ensures the Mall can meet the needs of ever-evolving democracy.

These most recent additions to the Mall remind us about the power of public spaces to tell these new national narratives. The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the MLK Memorial are more than just buildings or statues. They represent the dream for equality, and justice, and a full inclusive democracy. The Mall has made space for that dream to come true.

• Lisa Benton-Short is Chair of the Department of Geography at George Washington University, Senior Fellow with the Sustainability Collaborative and the author of the new book The National Mall: No Ordinary Public Space.


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