Thursday, February 3, 2011

‘African Origins,’ ‘Space Age Aspirations,’ and the National Black Museum

Imagine a museum that features H. Tubman and H. Lacks.

On January 22, I read this article “The Thorny Path to a National Black Museum” by Kate Taylor about the long road to establishing the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The article concentrates on Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director, and his efforts to make sure the museum has support and holdings by the time it opens in a $500 million building in 2015 on the National Mall.

Among other things, the article mentions that Bunch and his staff are “grappling with fundamental questions about the museum’s soul and message.” In particular, they are wondering what “story” the museum will tell.
What story will it tell? As part of the Smithsonian, the museum bears the burden of being the “official” — that is, the government’s — version of black history, but it will also carry the hopes and aspirations of African-Americans. Will its tale be primarily one of pain, focused on America’s history of slavery and racial oppression, and memorializing black suffering? Or will it emphasize the uplifting part of the story, highlighting the richness of African-American culture, celebrating the bravery of civil rights heroes and documenting black “firsts” in fields like music, art, science and sports? Will the story end with the country’s having overcome its shameful history and approaching a state of racial harmony and equality? Or will the museum argue that the legacy of racism is still dominant — and, if so, how will it make that case?
Later, it is revealed that Bunch plans to divide the museum into thirds. “One third will be devoted to historical galleries, anchored by a slavery exhibit. Another will be devoted to culture, dominated by music, with smaller sections given to visual arts and sports. The last third will be devoted to the theme of community.”

I’ve been reading the editorial responses and comments about the article from readers, and among other things, I’ve become interested in how histories of science, technology, and speculative fiction might be incorporated into the museum.

One reader, Arnold Henderson, wrote that “One hopes that the museum planners will also take this opportunity to display African-American contributions to literature, medicine, science and engineering. These topics receive comparatively little attention but are also critical components of our society and culture.”

Former Congressman Major Owens wrote in, and though his whole letter is good food for thought, my afrofuturist leanings had me especially drawn to his quick critique of the building’s current design and his proposed solution: “The African kingdom design motif is interesting, but too traditional and classical. Why not a museum that mixes African origins with space age aspirations?”

Mixing African origins with space age aspirations! Wow!

Now Owens was referring to the design of the building, but wouldn’t it be something to take that kind of imperative forward with an approach to the museum's content and displays? The African origins part will certainly be done, but what about the space age aspirations?

What would that look like?

I’m sure there will be displays celebrating George Washington Carver and his work with the peanut. Important. Yes. But what about presenting a display concerning the Tuskegee Experiment at the museum? The troubling histories of race and eugenics? On a different and up side, what about the hair care products created by black women?  

Among other issues, there will certainly need to be something about the increasingly important role of DNA searches, which on the one hand helped police locate and arrest the Grim Sleeper and on the other hand has helped exonerate hundreds of wrongly convicted people, many of whom were black men.

Speaking of which, on sociallifeofdna, Alondra Nelson recently retweeted the Innocence Project’s Fact of the Day: “The 266 U.S. DNA exonerees served a combined 3,471 yrs in prison for crimes they didn't commit.”

Here’s hoping that the social and historical lives of DNA have a place at the National Black Museum.

I’m also hoping the director, staff, and advisory board for the museum give serious consideration to finding some hip, engaging ways to present speculative histories. You know, something that links the folklore tales of enslaved people to the sci-fi musings of Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, and André 3000.

So yeah, a museum that takes black history and science seriously would mean visitors would leave the space thinking about Harriet Tubman and Henrietta Lacks

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Space Age, huh? I'm actually starting to really get into Black Speculative Fiction now...I'm more surprised at the length of time it HAS taken for this museum to come together...I thought it was supposed to be open much sooner. I was reading about it in my introduction to museum studies class fall 2009...2015 seems SO FAR AWAY!