There was a time when the best bet for a big installation on the Mall was an African-American cultural and historical museum (“Case History,” 2/6/98). In 1984, local businessman Tom Mack led a push, but the museum project was hampered by infighting among proponents as well as by a lack of support from the Smithsonian Institution and Congress. Instead of a full-fledged museum, the Smithsonian created the Center for African-American History and Culture and then merged it with the Anacostia Museum, a local arm of the Smithsonian in Southeast D.C. At the time, Smithsonian provost Dennis O’Conner released a statement saying that the Smithsonian would not be adding any new museums to its complex.
But now media attention has turned to two other museum efforts, one of which may well end up on the Mall. Several months ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Sinatra were on hand to tout a proposed museum of music, to be located downtown. And the proposed National Hispanic Museum has declared its interest in an underground site at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue NWwhich would put it near the Mall proper.
The idea of a major African-American museum continues to languish behind the headlines, leaving longtime proponents frustrated by the Smithsonian’s inaction, especially given that at least some of the programming and staff for a full-scale museum is already in place. “The staff for a museum exists, in the combined staff of Anacostia and the Center, and exhibitions have been forthcoming,” says James Early, one of the museum’s early advocates. “But the representation [of a museum] through an actual edifice, that commitment has been withdrawn.”
Steven Newsome, director of the Center and the Anacostia Museum, says that the museum effort is hampered not by the Smithsonian, but by a Republican Congress. “It takes a congressional act [to create a Smithsonian museum],” says Newsome. “I’m concerned that we haven’t made it through the congressional phase.”
Though it supports the two proposed new museums, the Smithsonian hierarchy maintains that neither the music nor the Hispanic museum will be part of the Smithsonian complexand thus contends that it hasn’t contradicted statements made when the black-history museum on the mall was nixed. “Our policy has not changed,” says spokesman David Umansky. Ta-Nehisi Coates