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Arts & Culture

Celebrating Black Heritage Online

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I am Farai Chideya. And this NEWS & NOTES.

Now is your chance to check out a new Smithsonian museum way before it opens its doors. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture has just launched a major online version of itself. The bricks-and-mortar museum won't open for eight more years.

Joining me now to talk about the museum - a virtual and physical - is director Lonnie Bunch.

Hi, Lonnie.

Dr. LONNIE BUNCH (Director, National Museum of African-American History and Culture): How are you?

CHIDEYA: I am doing great. So I actually have your Web site right here in front of me - clickable. And you have this map, this kind of interlinking of different places to go - culture, photograph, differences. You have people like Judith Jamison in "Cry." I mean, what's your intention with this Web site?

Dr. BUNCH: Well, in some ways, I realize that because the museum is still many years off, the history of African-Americans is too important to wait. So what I wanted to do was to make it accessible now by creating a virtual museum. Because what a virtual museum allows us to do is, not only to sort of make sure the history is accessible, but it also allows the public to shape who we are and who we will become once the building is open.

CHIDEYA: I see that you have things like Share Your Memory. So you're asking people, not only to see what you have, but also to contribute.

Dr. BUNCH: I think that as a historian, one of the things I know is that there's so much data, so many stories, so much history in people's minds in their stories. So what we wanted to do is to encourage people to share their histories because, first of all, that would create new information for historians like myself.

But also, it would begin to get people to realize that their history, their story is important. And if I can get people to realize their own family histories are important, then I could help people realize how important it is to preserve history, generally.

CHIDEYA: Now, let me go back to the bricks-and-mortar museum. A lot of people say that this kind of museums should have been opened a long time ago. There's a Native American Smithsonian museum. There's Air and Space. There's all these things. Why did it take so long to commission an African-American-focused museum?

Dr. BUNCH: Well, I think that the struggle has been over a hundred years trying to get a museum on The Mall, but I think the timing is right. I think that there is bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats to make this real. I think there's also a sort of a middle class of African-Americans who want to support this. But even more importantly, there are large numbers of non-African-Americans who realized that unless they understand the African-American story, they really don't understand the American story.

CHIDEYA: So you've got all of this work that's got to go into collecting physical objects for the museum. And then you have all this work for the Web. What do you think that - what's lacking from the Web site that you can't get unless you have physical objects for display?

Dr. BUNCH: Well, I think that what the Web site can give you are stories. You can see the images. But somehow, part of what happens in a museum is the social interaction among people, among families. So that when you come and see the real object - the Greensboro Lunch Counter or a car that the Pullman porters worked in - not only does this engage you because it's the real thing, but it encourages you to talk to children and to parents and to cousins and to the people just walking by you. So it really enlarges our understanding of the history by the social interaction that goes on within a museum.

CHIDEYA: I also see on your Web site that you have an exhibition, "Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African-American Portraits," that's actually going to be at the National Portrait Gallery - sort of one of your sister museums. Is that something you're going to do more?

Dr. BUNCH: Ah, yes. I mean, part of the notion is that I want to suggest that this isn't a museum project. That, in essence, this museum exists now. And so the Web site is one way to demonstrate that, but so is the exhibition "Let Your Motto Be Resistance."

In some ways, they are two wonderful poles for us. On the one hand, "Let Your Motto Be Resistance" is the kind of wonderful exhibition that you should expect from the Smithsonian, which is kind of traditional. But on the other hand, you have the Web site, which is very non-traditional for the Smithsonian. So I want to show that this new museum is going to be both a place of tradition and a place of innovation.

CHIDEYA: One of the great things about being able to go to the Smithsonian Museums is that they're free unlike many museums in other cities. What are you going to do in terms of outreach? You know, both with this Web site and then with the bricks-and-mortar museum to try to get non-traditional museum audiences in there?

Dr. BUNCH: Well, I think that, first of all, we recognize that we are a place of education and we are a place to tell stories. So part of what we want to do is really reach out to the Washington, D.C. area because I want to make sure people realize that the Smithsonian is in Washington, D.C. But then I also want to make sure that through the kinds of programs we do that we can encourage teacher training, that we can be a resource for information for students, that we are a place that people can come to when they want to learn about their family history.

In essence, our hope is simple. This is a museum that will help us all understand who we are as Americans and in some ways, will inspire us by these sort of wondrous African-American stories that we will tell.

CHIDEYA: One last thing, there are many different African-American-focused museums that have opened fairly recently, everything from the Civil Rights Museum to the Maryland African-American History Museum. Will you have any efforts to try to network with these other museums?

Dr. BUNCH: In fact, I have argued that our job is to realize that there are hundreds of institutions and thousands of people in this country who care about this subject. So our job is in essence, to be a collaborator, to be a beacon in essence that draws people to watch them because many people will come to the Smithsonian who won't go to other places. And our goal would be to get you to come either via the Web or actually to see the exhibitions we do. And then we'll push you back to the local community.

So if we're doing an exhibition on the migration of blacks from the south to the north, we'd also say, after you see our exhibition, go see how the DuSable Museum in Chicago explains that, or how the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles explains that. Our goal is to be a partner in making African-American history accessible and meaningful to us all.

CHIDEYA: Well, Lonnie, thanks so much.

Dr. BUNCH: Oh it's my pleasure as always to be with you.

CHIDEYA: So we've been talking to Lonnie Bunch. He's the director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. You can find a link to the virtual museum on our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.