D.C. museum strives to tell full story of painful history

A biplane used by the Tuskegee Airmen, draped in plastic during construction, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

WASHINGTON — When the National Museum of African American History and Culture was conceived in 2003, Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois; the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and Zimmerman’s acquittal, was years in the future; and Bill Cosby was a symbol of family decency.

Now, as the museum prepares to open here in September, the nation’s first black president is nearing the end of his second term, Cosby is accused of being a sexual predator and Americans are engaged in the most charged conversation about race in decades.

As events have complicated the museum’s original mission to be a “healing place,” curators have rushed to catch up with history, including documenting the rallies in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, while wrestling with how to tell it. How far to go in depicting the cruelty of slavery and the pain of segregation? How to tell the awful story of Emmett Till? And where does this story end? With the accomplishments of President Obama or with scenes of unrest and violence?

“What’s included, what’s not included, that’s a really, really huge responsibility,” said Kellie Carter Jackson, a scholar of 19th-century African-American history at Hunter College.

And there will be controversies. In an exhibit devoted to entertainment pioneers, for example, Cosby is included without mention of the dozens of women who say he sexually assaulted them. And the museum has decided to end its historical narrative not only with President Obama but also with the injustice and unrest that define the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I know that we are not going to please everybody,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, 63, the museum’s director, who is African-American. “Did we talk too much about religion and not enough about schools? Did we talk about class? Or what are we saying about gender?”

Like the Vietnam Memorial, the 9/11 Memorial Museum and other institutions built to record painful history, this museum has a challenging mandate: to commemorate, celebrate, provoke and heal. And in an effort to strike the right balance, the curatorial team led by Bunch has spent more than a decade building the collection, conducting focus groups and consulting authorities like John Hope Franklin, Taylor Branch, Colin L. Powell and Oprah Winfrey.

As they grappled with questions about the institution’s soul and mission, the curators were clear the museum should have relevance beyond a black audience.

“The American story is profoundly African-American,” said Paul Gardullo, a curator. “You don’t get America without African America; you don’t get our struggle for equality. And you don’t get jazz. You don’t get rock ‘n’ roll.”

Throughout the process of soliciting and weighing opinions, Bunch said, a key decision was how to treat slavery. “There were those who said, ‘It has to be about what they had done to us,’ ” he recalled. “There were those who felt that we had to de-emphasize it.”

In the end, he chose balance and resiliency. “We wanted to make sure you felt the pain of slavery, but you also pondered what it meant when one group of people did this to another group. Slavery was not the only way to define people. They had a strength that I wish I had.”

The building on the National Mall was designed by the Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye to evoke a crown motif from ancient Yoruban sculpture, or alternatively women’s hands raised to the sky in prayer.

It is planned so the historical journey begins below ground, in an exhibit called “Slavery and Freedom,” featuring an auction block where people were sold and a cramped pinewood cabin where slaves were housed on Edisto Island in South Carolina.

In striving for a fuller picture, the museum will include uplifting stories, like those about free black pioneers who farmed the Midwest in the 19th century. “It’s not only enslaved people,” said Michèle Gates Moresi, a curator at the museum, “but free blacks, and white people who didn’t enslave people.”

The tone of depictions was also a concern: How viscerally should the museum present the violence of slavery?

So while shackles and a whip are shown, the exhibit on slave ships does not try to re-create the wretched conditions. Instead, visitors will see a few remnants: a pulley block used to hoist a sail or cargo and a piece of a hull from a Portuguese slave ship that sank off the coast of South Africa in 1794, taking 212 of the 500 slaves shackled on board to their deaths.

The curators say that, even when depicting the worst oppression, they have tried to emphasize individual stories of the people who suffered.

From the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit, visitors will travel on a historical journey.

At the next stop, “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968,” they will file past the metal coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy savagely killed in Mississippi in 1955.

Emmett’s body was exhumed from a Chicago cemetery in 2005 during an investigation into his murder and reburied in a new coffin. The curators expect the original coffin to be an emotionally wrenching point in the exhibits.

There is also a space for what the museum is calling the “contemplative court,” where people can sit and remove themselves from, and come to terms with, what they have seen.

The final historical display along the ramp is “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond,” which will examine more recent social tumult.

Elsewhere, museum exhibits will feature African-American achievements in fields like music and sports. The team’s concern here was to avoid engaging in simplistic stereotypes.

“You will tap your toes to Louis Armstrong, but what we also said: Tell us the other side,” Bunch said. “What does rhythm and blues in the 1950s tell us about the changing urban landscape and cultural appropriation?”

Cosby’s inclusion is limited to a few artifacts but was never a matter of debate; he was too significant a figure in entertainment and television to leave out. So the museum will feature a single comedy record “I Started Out as a Child,” from 1964, a comic book from his show “I Spy,” and brief video clips from “I Spy” and “The Cosby Show.”

Half of the museum’s $540 million initial cost will come from federal funds; the other half will be privately donated. Bunch has a fundraising goal of $570 million and said he was confident the remainder would be gathered by the time Obama opens the museum on Sept. 24.

The museum, Bunch said, captures a symbolically important moment at the end of the Obama presidency, and he is relieved that its completion comes before the president leaves office.

But the Obama story commands relatively little space, one display case and part of another focusing on 2000 to 2015.

There will be, among other things, a clip of his 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia and the text of his 2013 speech at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Bunch said he would leave it to the Obama presidential library, planned for Chicago, to give the president greater focus.

And the Obama presidency is decidedly not the end of the story the museum means to tell. A Justice 4 Trayvon placard and a Black Lives Matter T-shirt underscore the issues of persistent inequality and police brutality.

“Building the story of African-American history to me feels important, timely and perhaps more timely than I hoped it would be,” said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.