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A groundbreaking event

February 22, 2012

A concept image of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Source:

This morning on the Mall in Washington, D.C., ground was broken for the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture. When completed in 2015, it will be the 19th member of the Smithsonian Institution group of museums. You can read news coverage of the event here and here and here. And there’s a photo gallery of the groundbreaking ceremony here. (warning: annoying, intrusive advert).

The NMAAHC is going up on a 5-acre site between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s hard to imagine a more significant location, or one that symbolically and spatially captures so well the complex (and often-marginalized) place in U.S. history that people of African descent occupy.

It’s just east of the Lincoln Memorial, site of the best-known single event of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. And it’s hard against the Washington monument (likely built in part with slave labor) and within sight of the U.S. Capitol building (definitely built in part by enslaved people — see this link for a pdf report from the Capitol’s architectural historian).

Symbolically situated between two locations that encapsulate some of the worst and best moments of the American experience, the museum’s very site reinforces its mission: “to help all Americans see just how central African American history is for all of us. The museum will use African American history and culture as a lens into what it means to be an American.”

It’s a long time in coming, and we’re still years away from completion. But that, too, reflects the long struggle to reconcile our worst memories of history with our best hopes for the future.

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