- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2016

Historian, professor at George Mason University and the first black director of the National Museum of American History — those are among the titles Spencer Crew has acquired over a long and varied career.

But Mr. Crew’s latest role may be the most important and impressive of all: guest curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“I’ve been able to do a lot of amazing things in my 25-year career, but being a part of this new museum is a milestone that I will savor for a lifetime,” he said.

The highly anticipated $540 million museum on the National Mall will open to the general public on Saturday. Museum officials expect about 20,000 visitors for the opening weekend events.

The guests are about as glittering — and bipartisan — as they get in Washington.

President Obama will headline the museum’s dedication ceremony starting at 10 a.m., three hours before its formal opening. First lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., civil rights icon and Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, will join other visitors from across the country for the celebration.

The 19th Smithsonian museum, adjacent to the Washington Monument, likely will be the last to take up residence on the Mall.

Museum officials say they want to tell a frank but uplifting story about resiliency of black Americans, from the importation of the first slaves in the early 1600s to contemporary black life in the United States.

Museum Director Lonnie Bunch and his team have assembled a collection of over 35,000 items for 12 exhibits in the 400,000-square-foot building that covers 5 acres.

Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, Emmett Till’s casket, a dress of Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali’s training robe and many other artifacts are among the historical treasures that will be on display.

Officials say even the museum’s distinctive architecture helps advance the story. The building is topped with a “corona” inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruba art of West Africa. More than 3,000 ornamental bronze-color metal panels on its exterior pay homage to the intricate ironwork of enslaved blacks in the American South.

“It’s a beautiful building and an excellent platform to tell the complex and amazing story of African-Americans in the United States,” said Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, who attended a preview last week.

“From the exhibitions to the programming to the museum’s restaurant, it’s all about educating visitors on the influence of African-American culture,” she said.

The slavery question

Even amid the celebrations, museum officials are bracing for what will be the most emotionally grueling part of the experience for first-time visitors: the exhibition space devoted to the history of slavery and the long, sometimes violent struggle for equality and civil rights.

The Associated Press reported that the museum has been training over 250 docents to help visitors take in and process the artifacts, documents and material depicting the slavery experience. The museum has even established a Contemplative Court — with a calming circular waterfall and a sunlit window — to help visitors decompress.

The museum also features a string of recording booths where visitors can share their stories and express their feelings about what they have seen. The accounts will be collected for reference.

“Slavery and Freedom,” the first gallery where visitors are directed, does not sugarcoat the slavery experience. Even the design is forbidding, with low ceilings, dark lighting and walls covered with quotes from the slavers and the enslaved, whose voices have been reproduced and are broadcast through the exhibits, according to the AP.

Among the material on display: slave shackles encased in a glass booth, a whip used by a slave trader to keep his charges in line on the voyage from Africa, the auction block from a slave market, and ballast blocks from a Portuguese ship that sank in 1794, leading to the deaths of hundreds of slaves.

“We felt it was crucial to craft a museum that would help American remember and confront its tortured racial past,” Mr. Bunch told reporters. “But we also thought while American should ponder the pain of racial segregation, it also had to find the joy, the hope, the resiliency, the spirituality that was endemic in this community.”

Mammoth job

The museum was established in 2003 when George W. Bush signed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act. Two years later, Mr. Bunch was appointed as the founding director to lead the mammoth process of fundraising, curating and staffing the museum.

Congress covered half of the funds needed to build and staff the museum, and Mr. Bunch was tasked with raising the rest. The museum found financial support from the public, churches, major corporations and celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, who donated more than $20 million.

For the past several years, Mr. Crew and other curators have worked with a team of museum officials, historians, research fellows and interns to bring the story of black America to life.

“Words are important, but the images and objects we have collected will help the public visualize the journey African-Americans have been through,” Mr. Crew said.

Earlier this month, the museum began issuing free timed entry passes for opening weekend through October. The passes sold out within an hour.

Because of high demand, officials released additional passes, but those quickly disappeared as well. For now, entry will be granted only to visitors with passes, which are available on the museum’s website (nmaahc.si.edu/).

This weekend’s Freedom Sounds Festival, with musical performances and notable appearances, will be free and open to the public.

“African-Americans have been waiting a long time for our story to be told,” said Ms. Davis. “It’s hard to believe the opening is only a day away.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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