Aspen Times Weekly: Dreaming a World Anew |

Aspen Times Weekly: Dreaming a World Anew

by Andrew Travers
The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C.
Alan Karchmer/Courtesy photo |

The country cheered last month as the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on 5 acres of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

While most of us here in the mountains haven’t yet had the honor of walking its halls in the weeks since it opened, we did get a preview of the museum at the Aspen Ideas Festival and can get a sweeping narrative of the museum’s massive undertaking in a new book as we plan our trips to D.C.

At Ideas Fest in July, David Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, walked through the century5long struggle to establish the museum, beginning with black Civil War veterans lobbying for it on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg and the idea finally winning approval from Congress and President George W. Bush in 2003 as a Smithsonian museum.

“There’s a lot of debate in museum circles about — well, about everything — but one of the things is, ‘Is it actually good to have separate museums for different parts of the nation’s demographic? Or should we view everything as American and try to develop a large melting pot?’” he said.

Skorton’s answer was that both are key to telling the story of the country and keeping its history alive, which, after all, is his job and the mission of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums. The 400,000-square-foot building and the $540 million museum that opened Sept. 24 seeks to underscore that the African-American story is the American story.

“I actually believe both things are very important,” Skorton said, “that it’s important to have a holistic view of American history in a museum like the National Museum of American History, but that it’s also important to focus on certain aspects of the American story. And I think it’s a very good decision that was taken, all those years ago, to have that.”

Skorton took over the Smithsonian in the summer of 2015, with the opening of the African American museum just around the corner. He recalled the process of choosing a date for the grand opening as an early lesson in the ways of Washington. Skorton’s assistant, he recalled, informed him he’d be cutting the ribbon with President Obama — Skorton suggested they send the White House some dates in the fall of 2016 that worked for Skorton. In response, Skorton recalled with a laugh, his assistant promptly sat him down and yelled: “The White House will tell you what dates are good for you!”

In the Smithsonian’s new book, “Dream a World Anew: The African American Experience and the Shaping of America,” scholars and museum staffers attempt to put the experience of the museum between two hard covers. In his introduction, museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III tells of how he and his curators spent years traveling the country collecting heirlooms from private citizens’ attics and trunks, eventually amassing the 37,000-piece collection now held by the museum.

The rest of the lavishly illustrated book draws the narrative of African-American history using those artifacts — from a gunpowder horn used by a former slave in the American Revolution to the shawl Harriet Tubman received from Queen Victoria to James Baldwin’s passport, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Muhammad Ali’s headgear — alongside essays, photographs and capsule biographies of key figures from Sojourner Truth to Spike Lee.

“Dream a World Anew” looks at the African American experience through both a chronological and thematic lens, with chapters focused on the period from slavery to emancipation, and then through the long period of segregation to the civil rights movement, with essays on entrepreneurship, black newspapers, education, sports and a host of other topics. The latter portion of the book offers a rich portrait of the African-American influence on American culture through art, music, theater and literature (the entire book also is peppered liberally with poems from contemporary greats like Maya Angelou, Natasha Tretheway, Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni).

“This history unpacks the best and the worst of the American past and shows the broad impact and reach of this story,” writes Bunch. “In essence, the African American past contains the moments that have shaped all who call themselves Americans.”