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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrates the fifth anniversary of its opening, today, Sept. 24, under the theme, “Living History.” The centerpiece of the celebration is today’s opening of a new exhibition titled, “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies.” The exhibition and its companion book explore the Reconstruction era through the African American experience, connecting the era to today’s efforts to make good on the promises of the Constitution. The exhibition is on view through Aug. 21, 2022, in the museum’s Bank of America Special Exhibitions Gallery.
During its first five years, the museum has welcomed more than 7.5 million in-person visitors from 103 countries and more than 15.4 million visitors to its website. Its social channels have had more than 604 million impressions and gained more than 630,000 followers. Its collections have grown steadily: nearly 10,000 new objects bring the total collection to approximately 40,000. The museum has won more than 60 awards in areas ranging from social media, website and architecture to culinary arts and technology. It has hosted more than 250 in-person and virtual public programs, including children’s workshops, film and book discussions, and panel discussions covering various topics in African American history and culture.
Over the past five years, the museum has engaged audiences in new ways and to make African American history and culture more immediately accessible—an effort the pandemic accelerated.
“On this momentous day of our fifth anniversary, the museum is thrilled to welcome visitors in person and online,” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Even as we celebrate this milestone, we are looking back, looking around and looking ahead to a full year of activities, programming and exhibitions that tell the story of America through an African American lens, moving from slavery to freedom, past to present, Reconstruction to Reckoning.”
The museum commemorates five years of “Living History” underscoring five aspects of history and culture:
Through exhibitions, programs and publications, the museum shares stories that reflect past, present and future. Underway are several initiatives to help to record and preserve African American history and culture. Featured in an interactive exhibition in the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, the Freedmen’s Bureau Records transcription project has transcribed more than 280,000 pages, making these records available to the public and scholars involved in historical and genealogical research. Since its launch in 2016, more than 31,000 people from around the world have transcribed documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau Records.
Through its Oral History Initiative, the museum documents, preserves and interprets African American stories using filmed interviews with people who have made history or witnessed history in the making. Its Civil Rights History Project has gathered first-person accounts of key moments in the civil rights movement.
Since its opening, the museum has reimagined the visitor experience through its digital platforms, offering new ways to connect with visitors and bring the museum outside its walls. It has created a number of online exhibitions, including “Cultural Expressions” and “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field” and the genealogy of Pauli Murray, a pioneering lawyer, activist, writer and Episcopal priest.
The museum has also launched several digital programs and initiatives, including:
- The Talking About Race web portal, designed to help individuals, families, educators and communities talk about racism and racial identity.
- The March on Washington resource webpage explores the historical significance of the 1963 march through a collection of objects, stories, photographs and videos.
- The Juneteenth resource webpage explains the origins and cultural traditions of Juneteenth, the holiday marking the day enslaved African Americans learned they had been freed some two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
- The museum’s newest digital initiative, “Searchable Museum,” brings the museum experience to visitors worldwide. In October, the museum will release a new web experience allowing visitors to access select exhibitions online, encapsulating the in-person visitor experience and transporting those who wish to visit or return to the museum virtually. The first iteration of the Searchable Museum will feature content from the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition.
Collaboration and Community
The museum has partnered with several institutions and organizations to cultivate and preserve African American artifacts:
- The Slave Wrecks Project searches for slave ships, recovering the history and humanity of those captured and enslaved. It is one of the museum’s earliest and ongoing collaborative projects, partnering with George Washington University, the National Park Service and several organizations in South Africa, Mozambique, Senegal and Saint Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands).
- Johnson Publishing Company archive—the Johnson Publisihing Co. published Ebony and Jet magazines. Its archive was acquired in 2019 and purchased by a consortium of foundations: the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- The consortium of five Historically Black Colleges was established by the museum in March 2021 to conserve their art collections and archives.
- The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap is a first-of-its-kind collector’s item that chronicles hip-hop’s growth and impact over the last 45 years. The anthology is a collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways.
Collecting the New and the Now
The museum has acquired several objects to document contemporary social-justice campaigns, including the Black Lives Matter movement. It assembled a rapid-response team to collect photographs, banners and film footage from the protests staged across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd, capturing the expressions of outrage and hope in real time.
During the Smithsonian-wide 24 hours in a Time of Change, the museum collected stories showing how individuals and families struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The museum’s Robert F. Smith Fund Community Curation platform is an innovative project that collects stories from the African American community, allowing it to share its own unique stories to preserve and share community history and culture. In 2021, the museum jointly acquired the portrait of Breonna Taylor by Amy Sherald with the Speed Art Museum of Louisville, Kentucky.
The museum has created and provided several resources, initiatives and exhibitions that explore and teach the public about social justice through the contributions of its generous donors and members. Earlier this month, the museum opened a new visual arts exhibition titled “Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience,” which documents the struggle Black Americans have faced in their pursuit of enjoying the fundamental rights and freedoms promised in the Constitution as citizens of the United States. “Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience” can be viewed on the museum’s fourth floor.
Its latest exhibition, “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies,” tells the story of millions of newly freed African Americans post-Civil War and their continued determination to be acknowledged as free and equal citizens in the U.S. in the present day. “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies” is located in the museum’s Bank of America Special Exhibitions Gallery located on the concourse level.
About the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 7.5 million in-person visitors and millions more through its digital presence. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.
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