Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

National African American Museum

Maya Rhodan, After 100 years, the museum is on track to open in 2016, Time, 9 May 2015

Planned Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Planned Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

A mother stoops down to be within earshot of her puffy-pigtailed daughters. Before them stands an oval table enclosed in a glass case. The smaller of the two children stretches a tiny finger toward the yellowing lace covering the caramel-colored wood. It’s likely the table looks like any number of tables those little girls have seen in their lives. To me, it looks like the one where I eagerly placed silverware as a child, while my grandma shouted the multiplication tables from her South Side Chicago kitchen. It’s a table around which any family could discuss the mundane aspects of daily life–the neighbors, the post office. Which is kind of the point, really.

On Friday, “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection” opened in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., offering a preview of what’s to come when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in 2016. The actual building is about a year and a half away from completion, but the artifacts on display are a peek at the tens of thousands that the Smithsonian has gathered over the past decade of planning for the new institution. The show is a preview of what visitors will see when the museum opens: a tent from a civil war camp, a necktie owned by Harriet Tubman, an organ owned by James Brown, notes from a Virginia midwife and dresses by designer Ann Lowe.

And the table, of course, which isn’t just any old table. It belonged to Lucinda Todd of Kansas, who served as a secretary of the Topeka Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Todd was one of the 13 plaintiffs who fought for the desegregation of schools in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. That table was where the NAACP Legal Defense Fund convened to prepare for the historic case. In presenting artifacts like it, the museum’s curators hope to highlight the ties between history’s trailblazers and ordinary Americans–a link that has come to have extra meaning in recent weeks.

“You think about what a simple table tells us about hope, about community, about family, but also about the strategy that is so integral to change in America,” says Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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