Last week, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture opened its doors in Washington D.C.. A monumental project to be celebrated widely, it encourages a necessary conversation across generations and communities.
Featured this week in Clad Global in an interview with architect David Adjaye, “the 400,000sq ft nine storey museum located on Constitution Avenue explores the story of America through the lens of the African American experience. It is home to exhibition galleries, an education centre, a 350-seat theatre and a memorial area.” When asked about designing cultural spaces, Adjaye highlights the important role museums play in providing access to a collective consciousness. In telling the stories that need to be told, exhibitions slowly contribute to social reinvention. But, laying out a complex history in one building is certainly not an easy feat. New museums invite reactions of all types, especially ones dealing with difficult subjects just as relevant today as they were generations ago.
While many news articles celebrate the project’s achievement, the newest museum in Washington has also welcomed debate. In an article in the Miami Herald, Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum, explains the challenges of telling America’s history all while breaking the myths that have been passed on through generations: “We spent a lot of time in the first two years interviewing people, what they knew, what they didn’t want to know. People either wanted to know everything about slavery or nothing about slavery. What I felt was that our job was to give the public not just what it wanted, but what it needed. How do we tell stories that would allow us, [as] African Americans to, quite candidly, no longer be embarrassed by their slave ancestors, no longer be embarrassed by the struggles their community had?”
Museums like this one demonstrate the very important civic role cultural institutions play in fostering dialogue on real social issues. As Gail Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg, internationally recognized museum planners discuss in their book entitled Cities, Museums and Soft Power, museums have become places where beyond displaying artefacts, peoples’ stories are validated. In order to remain relevant, museums have to become what Gail calls “agents of soft power”, wielding influence in their cities by acting as leaders for social change and places of real debate. But one question remains: What exactly do we, as citizens, hope for the future of our museums?