The Yale University Art Gallery hosted founding director Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III Tuesday afternoon for a lecture on the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Bunch discussed some of the challenges facing the museum’s creation, including issues related to defining programmatic goals, contending with public expectations and designing and constructing its building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In addition to offering insight into a number of strategies used to navigate such challenges, Bunch highlighted the museum’s major vision: to create “a place to help us remember.” The museum’s proposal, which was passed in 2003, signaled a growing realization of the importance of the Civil Rights movement, Bunch noted. Slated to open in the fall of 2016, the institution’s creation marks the first time a national museum has been constructed “from the ground up,” without initial money, a commissioned architect or a sizeable staff, he added.
“The struggle to make Americans not just remember what they want, but what they need, has been 100 years long,” Bunch said. “The goal of the museum is to make America better, to point us toward what we should learn.”
To build the museum’s collection, Bunch explained that he and his team undertook an “antiques roadshow” of sorts, searching for families or individuals with artifacts they hoped the museum would preserve. Through the collection, the team has compiled 40,000 objects, including Nat Turner’s Bible and a box containing original manuscripts of Harriet Tubman’s hymns.
In his lecture, Bunch highlighted challenges including securing congressional money and support, selecting a design for the building itself and curating the museum’s collection in a way that would engage visitors.
“I think the thing that worried me the most was managing public expectations,” said Bunch. “We have to help America wrestle with its past — to make it candid and clear, but also understandable.”
The director added that other major questions related to the building’s physical appearance. An international competition was held that attracted a number of submissions, including the winning project, proposed by a pair of “starchitects,” David Adjaye and Philip Freelon. Their design, Bunch said, makes the “dark presence” of slavery and racism in American history a physical reality, executed in bronze-painted aluminum. It will stand in stark contrast to the Mall’s white marble buildings, and designs on its surface will pay homage to a pattern that figured prominently in enslaved craft tradition.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who attended the lecture, said he appreciates that the museum’s approach focuses on creating “room for discussion,” providing the American public with a forum in which they will be able to consider important issues about race and historical memory.
“It lines up with our aspirations of what we’re trying to do on campus,” Holloway said.
Bunch’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Yale University Franke Program in Science and the Humanities; the Yale-Smithsonian Partnership for Research and Public Engagement; the Yale University Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition; the Yale University Art Gallery; and the Public Humanities at Yale.