San Francisco Opens African Diaspora Museum

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Karen Grigsby Bates reports on San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora, which opened this week.

ED GORDON, host:

This week, San Francisco played host to a joyful celebration.

(Soundbite of African drums)

GORDON: The festivities were for the grand opening of the Museum of the African Diaspora. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.

(Soundbite of African drums)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

On a recent crisp evening in San Francisco's Yerba Buena district, visitors entering the lobby of the Museum of the African Diaspora, or MoAD, were serenaded by the sound of African drums. The crowd was large, enthusiastic and multicultural. Belva Davis is an African-American journalist who was tapped to chair MoAD's board and raise funds for the museum's construction. Davis says she wanted to emphasis to potential donors that while MoAD had plenty of black support, the museum is not only about black folks.

Ms. BELVA DAVIS (Board Chair, Museum of the African Diaspora): What we say here at MoAD, and what science says, too, is that all of us are African. We all came from this one place, the African continent, and that, you know, over the millions of years we've all migrated but we're still connected. Our DNA tells us that we are all one body, one human family, and that's the story that I would preach; and I would go out and say that MoAD is this fuzzy idea that's using art and culture to deliver a social message, and that is one of equality of all humans.

BATES: That was a message contributors were happy to support. As a result, the museum was funded and built on time. There are many parts of this elegant, three-story structure that emphasis celebration of the African diaspora, but executive director Denise Bradley says the museum also had to include somber spaces, too. Here she takes us into a place with a very specific purpose.

Ms. DENISE BRADLEY (Executive Director, Museum of the African Diaspora): This space, see, Slavery Passage, is meant to be a--sort of a meditation, sort of a reflective space. And you go in and, you know, people go in and they sit and there are images on the wall.

BATES: And there's s...

Ms. BRADLEY: So it's very moving.

BATES: So it's a long, fairly narrow space with people facing each other, and then on these blank walls behind us...

Ms. BRADLEY: There are images of, you know, experiences of, you know--images of slavery. And then you hear the people's stories, but the room is a darkened room.

BATES: Slavery is important, Bradley concedes, but it's not the only thing that should come to mind when one thinks of Africa. One of MoAD's most important jobs is to draw connections to Africa beyond the usual stereotypes and to authoritatively explain to visitors what the continent has given the world. Jill Cook, head of prehistory at the British Museum in London, outlines some of those contributions.

Ms. JILL COOK (Head of Prehistory, British Museum): Technology began in Africa and our cultural temperament and our interest in arts began in Africa. And those are very positive things to say about Africa in a world where we perhaps reflect most on AIDS, poverty, corruption. And it helps us to remember our duties towards Africa in that we are all African by origin. And all of these are very positive messages to be sending out.

BATES: The Museum of the African Diaspora is now officially open to the public after a week of record preview attendance. And all this week, more and more people have been discovering that they, too, are African.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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