A National African American Museum was to join the imposing cluster of Smithsonian Institution museums and galleries on the Mall this year.

It won’t.

The museum was to have showcased two centuries of black experience in the United States. Its holdings might have included unpublished transcripts of slave narratives and interviews; materials related to civil rights and Black Power organizations; diaries; film and video; art and literature from the Harlem Renaissance; genealogies; and quilts, jewelry, and household items. That collection would have occupied the renovated Arts and Industries Building, a prime piece of real estate next to the Smithsonian “castle.”

But for now, due chiefly to funding problems, those plans seem a distant dream. The question is not when the museum will open its doors, but whether it can survive even as a concept.

Financial setbacks have consigned the museum to limbo. Late last year, the museum lost all of its anticipated funding as part of a Senate maneuver to placate arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and other museum sponsors hoped to deflate Helms’ economic arguments against the museum and maybe even gain his support. To do so, they rewrote the museum bill, removing $5 million of federal funding intended to pay start-up costs and “such sums as may be necessary for each of the succeeding fiscal years.”

The Smithsonian, already constrained by tight budgets, was in no shape to make up the difference. Shrinking federal outlays and decreasing trust fund revenues have resulted in reduced staffing. In 1993, 77 jobs were cut; 229 face extinction by the end of this fiscal year. Less money has also meant fewer exhibitions and education programs, feeble computer systems, and soaring maintenance problems. To say the least, the Arts and Industries Building hasn’t been spruced up to house the African American Museum. In fact, pails have been placed on the floors to catch water from leaking ceilings.

The Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson, Communications Director David Umansky, says that without funding, launching the African American Museum is out of the question. “If we had the money, we’d build the museum,” he says. “We don’t have the money.”

Not surprisingly, the Smithsonian’s rank and file pay close attention to possible portents of doom. And recently, they’ve spotted an especially unnerving omen for the museum. On Smithsonian letterhead and business cards, the entity is now called the “National African American Museum Project.” But a recent Smithsonian proposal would drop the word “project” in favor of the word “center”—and even more worrisome, the word “museum” might be cut as well.

Asked why the Smithsonian would even consider eliminating the word “museum,” Umansky answers with a straightforward “I don’t know.” He adds, however, that “the name is not critical [because] there’s no change in the function of the program.”

If that’s true, staffers ask, why change the name at all?

Claudine Brown, the African American Museum director who announced her resignation last month, says she cannot “verify” whether the Smithsonian has dropped its four-year-old commitment to building the project. As for whether the museum has any life left, she says, “I don’t have a clear notion.”

Anacostia Museum Director Steven Newsom, who will soon add Brown’s duties to his own, was more upbeat. He insists that the project is “still alive” and that a museum will be built “eventually.”

But other Smithsonian staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, are far more angry and pessimistic. They blame Smithsonian Institution Secretary Ira Michael Heyman and Undersecretary Constance Berry Newman for sabotaging the museum. “The African-American community asked for a museum,” says one highly placed staffer. “And this change of the name to a “project’ or “center’ is a breach of the public trust.”

Another prominent Smithsonian staffer says Heyman and Newman are only being realistic about the museum’s chances in the 104th Congress. And obscuring the museum’s present high profile is part of their strategy. “They feel they’ve got to lay low until the situation is more accommodating and do what has to be done to keep [the museum] alive.”

Some observers also sense a reaction to the recent Enola Gay controversy. The Smithsonian’s exhibit of the restored forward fuselage of the B-29 that dropped the first atom bomb was to be accompanied by a proposed text that, according to veterans’ groups, showed the Japanese as victims of American racism and vengeance. While the text has since been scratched, the Smithsonian’s managers may still be sensitive to the issue. Two weeks ago, Newman reportedly called off a luncheon honoring those who worked on the exhibit—a slap in the face, said one museum official, to staffers associated with a project that made upper management “fearful.”

Controversy is not new to the Smithsonian. In the past five years, its exhibits, historical interpretations, and hiring practices have drawn flak from both the right and left. In 1991, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Ala.) charged the institution with harboring a “left-leaning political agenda” for challenging traditional views of the nation’s westward expansion. And in 1993, Tom Mack, president of a District tour bus company and one of the African American Museum’s prime movers, withdrew his support from the project when Congress decided that the museum would be part of the sprawling Smithsonian family. The Smithsonian, said Mack, “has for the entirety of its existence been a racist organization and does not deserve to control an African American Museum.”

It was Mack who reportedly talked the late Rep. Mickey Leland, a Texas Democrat, into drafting the first museum bill in 1986. Three years later, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) introduced a similar bill, and in May 1991, the Smithsonian’s governing board of regents endorsed the notion of building a museum to “celebrate the creativity and accomplishments of persons of African descent.” Since then, the legislation—authored by Lewis in the House and Paul Simon in the Senate—has gained the favor of two presidents and an impressive array of Congressional liberals and conservatives. George Bush, Dan Quayle, and Strom Thurmond all supported the project.

But Helms, who fought a lonely and unsuccessful battle against the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, persevered against the museum. In the last days of the 103rd Congress, his parliamentary moves made mincemeat of the bipartisan coalition supporting the project. And that means the bill’s sponsors must start anew in a Republican-majority Congress that may not see Helms as simply an angry, weird white guy.

The upshot of all this maneuvering remains uncertain. Simon says he will continue to push for the bill’s passage in the Senate, and a spokeswoman for Lewis says he’ll do the same in the House. Donna Brazile, top aide of D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton—who made establishing the museum one of her top national priorities—asserts that if the bill passes, “it will say what’s going to happen regardless of what the Smithsonian says.”

But even if Congress does find money next year—an uncertain prospect, to say the least—the continued delay may make casualties of the very things the museum was supposed to display. Brown and Deborah Willis, the museum’s collections coordinator, criss-crossed the country and located more than 15,000 objects and many potential donors—including four collectors, each of whom possesses more than 1,000 objects. Brown notes, however, that much of the material is either in a fragile state or an unsafe environment, or is owned by elderly people who have no heirs.

And waiting only puts those pieces of history further out of reach.

More from WCP