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Shovels Break Ground for a New Smithsonian Museum

President Barack Obama presided over the start of a new museum devoted to African American history and culture

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Secretary Clough, former First Lady Laura Bush, museum director Lonnie Bunch and other dignitaries break ground for the new museum

This morning, amidst camera flashbulbs and television cameras in an enormous white tent on the National Mall, with President Barack Obama presiding, former First Lady Laura Bush, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, museum director Lonnie Bunch and others took part in a milestone moment in Smithsonian history. After a five-second countdown shouted in unison by the jubilant crowd, the assembled dignitaries plunged their shovels into a small rectangle of dirt, marking the groundbreaking for the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution: the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

President Obama spoke moments before the ground was broken, praising the efforts of those responsible for the museum. “This day has been a long time coming,” he said. “We will preserve within these walls the history of a people who, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ We will remember their stories.”

The ceremony that preceded the groundbreaking featured stirring speeches by notables such as civil rights leader and Georgia Representative John Lewis, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and others. There were inspirational performances by opera singer Denyce Graves, baritone Thomas Hampson, jazz pianist Jason Moran and the U.S. Navy Band.

Once the thousands of folding chairs are hauled away and the tent broken down, construction teams will begin the work of building a new museum that will tell a new strand of the American story to the public. Bunch and others will continue seeking out artifacts and curating exhibitions, adding to the more than 25,000 pieces they have already collected since 2005, when he was named director. Once it is completed in 2015, the museum will tell generations the story of the African-American struggle for freedom.

“Millions of visitors will stand where we stand long after we’re gone,” Obama said. “When our children look at Harriet Tubman’s shawl, or Nat Turner’s bible, or the plane flown by the Tuskegee airmen, I don’t want them to be seen as figures somehow larger than life—I want them to see how ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things, how men and women just like them had the courage and the determination to right a wrong.”

Museum Director Lonnie Bunch echoed Obama’s call for the museum to illustrate the multifaceted history of African-Americans, from slavery through the present. “It must tell the unvarnished truth. This will be a museum with moments that make one cry, or ponder the pain of slavery and segregation,” he said. “It will also be a museum that soars on the resiliency of a people, and will illuminate the joy and the belief in the promise of America that has shaped this community.”

Creation of the museum began with passage of a congressional act in 2003. The building will be located on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets, just beside the Washington Monument and the American History Museum, and within eyesight of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. “What a magnificent location, and view, with powerful symbolism,” the Smithsonian’s Secretary G. Wayne Clough said. “It’s a fitting home for this museum, invoking the indelible threads that connect the fabric of African-American stories to the American tapestry.”

The building itself is designed by a team including award-winning architect David Adjaye, who was selected in April 2009 by a jury chaired by Bunch. The unique design includes a three-tiered copper-coated “corona,” which will house the main gallery spaces, along with a “porch,” which will serve as the entrance that connects the museum to the surrounding Mall. “The form of the building suggests a very upward mobility,” Adjaye said in an interview in this month’s issue of Smithsonian. “It brings that sense that this is not a story about past trauma. It’s not a story of a people that were taken down, but actually a people that overcame.”

The museum will feature exhibitions on African-American culture, community and history, starting with the Middle Passage and continuing through slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and into the 21st century. Notable artifacts already in the museum’s collections include Emmett Till’s casket, a Jim Crow-era segregated railway car, a vintage Tuskegee plane and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible.

President Obama is confident that these artifacts and the exhibitions will not just serve as history lessons, but also motivate future generations to struggle against injustice and continue striving for equality. “The museum will do more than simply keep these memories alive,” he said. “It should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily. It should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop trying.”

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