WASHINGTON — It is a blight on American history that history cannot ignore:
The exploitation and enslavement of black people for hundreds of years, the destruction of individuals and families, and a nation so divided over whether slaves were property or people that it fueled a war.
It will be the challenge of a new museum in the nation’s capital to tell that story, however uncomfortable the subject might be to some, because it defines the history of African-Americans.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open on the National Mall in 2015. The curators have spent years gathering artifacts, oral histories and documents. It has been a massive and meticulous undertaking.
“So much of our history is in the basement, attics and trunks of people,” said Lonnie Bunch, a historian and the museum’s director, and who is African-American.
But more than a century after its abolition, how do you depict the degradation and horrors of slavery in ways that people can grasp? Fundamentally, any museum is just a collection of inanimate objects. But in the right context they become alive and can be transportive, evoking a time and atmosphere that is almost tangible.
Like the fliers announcing the buying and selling of Africans at slave auctions in the middle of the nation’s capital; the whip-scarred backs of runaway slaves captured in photographs taken by abolitionists, even the whips themselves; and the shackles, some small enough for a child, from the hold of a slave ship.
“One-quarter of those in slavery were children,” said Nancy Bercaw, an associate curator in the political division at the National Museum of American History.
Curators know that to tell the story of slavery is to put on display a disturbing era of America’s history.
It means relics like bills of sale, with descriptions of grown men and young women, many identified by just a first name; slave buttons, which were marked with the slave owner’s name and sewn into lapels to identify the person as a slave and not a free black person; and the Bible belonging to Nat Turner, the slave who led a famous, bloody rebellion in 1831 that left more than 50 white people dead. It sparked retaliation from slave owners that killed more than twice as many black people.
“I tried to find the right tension in finding what people wanted to know and what they needed to know,” said Bunch.
He left his job as director of the Chicago Historical Society in 2005 to become the founding director of the new museum, a part of the vast Smithsonian complex of museums and galleries and that also includes the Air and Space Museum and the National Zoo. Bunch had been at the Smithsonian before, as associate director of curatorial affairs. Now he was asked to build a cultural showcase from the ground up, on a topic that carried considerable emotional freight.
Bunch said that he had a staff of two and “no idea where we were going and not a single object in the collection. Now we have 90 people on staff, the best site in America for a museum, next to the Washington Monument, and we’ve collected over 20,000 artifacts.”
The museum has amassed a diverse collection that reflects the contributions of blacks to American society, from fashion, the arts, public service and more. There’s a silk shawl given to slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria; a training plane used by the Tuskegee Airmen, a unit of black pilots who fought in World War II; and pop idol Michael Jackson’s iconic black felt fedora.
Bunch has not shied away from controversy, either.
Last year, the museum took on an American icon, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and a slave owner. The exhibit, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” was on display at the museum’s temporary site at the American History Museum. It’s now at the Atlanta History Center until July, when it moves to the Missouri History Center in St. Louis.
“You have to create the sense that this is about people, that there is a human dimension to the institution of slavery,” said Bunch, whose father’s great-grandmother had been a slave. “You have to tell the unvarnished truth, the pain as well as resiliency. Slavery shaped politics. Slavery shaped industrial growth. Slavery shaped our culture. Slavery had a ripple in all aspects of America.”
The Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in the Confederate states, plays a prominent role in the museum’s offerings. On view through Sept. 15 at the museum’s temporary site is an exhibit on the 150th anniversary of the life-changing document, juxtaposed with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, which helped propel the civil rights movement.
The museum’s collection will also include 3-inch-by-2-inch copies of the proclamation that were printed to go into the backpack of every Union soldier. And there is the inkwell that President Abraham Lincoln used in June 1862 to write the first draft of his famous order.
The inkwell sat on a desk in the telegraph office inside the War Department, where the president would stop by to get news about the Union forces, a scene depicted in the 2012 acclaimed film “Lincoln.”
The 16th president, said Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of political history at the American History Museum, had many forces to deal with as he struggled with the Emancipation Proclamation, including the economic power of the slave states and political pressure from the North.
“There was this realization that slavery would have to be dealt with,” Rubenstein said.
The museum also pays its respects to former slave, author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who founded an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, and spoke and wrote extensively against the bondage of blacks. The collection includes Douglass’ “slave narrative,” a written account of his life as a slave in Maryland.
Steeped as he has been in developing the collection, Rex Ellis, the associate director for curatorial affairs, said a particular image has stayed with him that fuels his drive to make the museum capture a place in time and keep it in the nation’s collective memory.
Once on a trip to South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the state’s southern coastal region, as he stared at the miles and miles of marshes, Ellis thought about the slaves, including children, who stood in that water picking rice for the plantation owners. When alligators and snakes came floating toward them, they had nowhere to go.
It was a big contributor to the infant mortality rate among slaves in the region, he said.
“It takes you back,” Ellis said. “I wish I could find a way to have my audience experience it. That’s the challenge: How can you tell a story of humanity, of resistance, of faith?”