Short On Time

Clock is ticking for national African American museum

A commission chartered by Congress last year to study the creation of a National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is nearing its deadline.

The 23-member panel must present a report to President George W. Bush and Congress in April detailing where they believe the museum should be built and how they plan to raise the estimated $200 million–$500 million needed to do so. The commission is likely to call on black America’s corporate titans, entertainers, and professional athletes for help.

“We will be seeking corporate funding, looking at Fortune 500 companies that make a lot of their profits from the African American community,” says Andrew McLemore Jr., an executive at a Detroit construction firm and chairman of the museum’s fund-raising and budget committee.

Experts say that raising the money necessary for making a national black history museum a reality will be difficult. “That’s very, very hard,” says William H. Billingsley, president of the National Afro-American Museum & Culture Center at Wilberforce University. “Large organizations that used to donate to things like that are downsizing. Companies are having problems and that means they’re not giving.”

However, the committee is undeterred. At stake is an effort to create the nation’s first official collection of artifacts of the black American experience — an effort that begun in 1929. Since that year, when Congress authorized the first national commission to study building a national memorial, there have been four other federally chartered boards that have studied the idea.

But before even seeking funding, the committee has a few tasks to perform. One of them is to create a report that addresses areas such as: (1) the feasibility of building the museum; (2) the availability and cost of collections to be housed there; (3) the impact of the facility on African Americans; (4) potential locations for the museum on the National Mall; (5) its organizational structure; (6) how it could be affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution; and (7) the cost of converting the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building in Washington, D.C., into the museum.

After the commission presents its report to the president and Congress in April, it will be decided if another law or executive order for the actual construction of a museum will be signed. A museum commission that met in 1990 recommended the Arts & Industries Building, which now hosts a rotating collection of exhibits on art, history, science, and culture.

Claudine Brown, director of the New York-based Nathan Cummings Foundation and vice chair of the presidential commission studying the creation of a national museum, acknowledges the challenges her commission faces. But she also hopes that the government — which authorized the work — will give them a jump-start financially as well.

“It’s my hope that at the end of the year legislation will be passed to authorize the building of an African American history museum, and I also hope it includes appropriations for funding,” she says.

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