Museum Charts Spread of Africans Across Globe The Museum of the African Diaspora, the latest addition to San Francisco's Museum Row, opens its doors to the public Friday. Through art and artifacts, the museum aims to tell at least part of the story of all people who can trace their roots to Africa -- from present day to ancient times.
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Museum Charts Spread of Africans Across Globe

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Museum Charts Spread of Africans Across Globe

Museum Charts Spread of Africans Across Globe

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In San Francisco, the latest addition to the city's Museum Row, that would be the Museum of the African Diaspora, opens today. Through art and artifacts, the museum aims to tell at least part of the story of all people who can trace their roots to Africa, from present day to ancient times. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates got an early look and here's her report.


In a few hours, the lobby of the Museum of the African Diaspora will be thronged with celebrants. But at the moment it's filled with lots of noise and workmen making last-minute adjustments. Executive director Denise Bradley is fielding yet another call on her cell phone and hoping everything will come together in the end as promised.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, OK.

BATES: As things come down to the wire like this, Bradley says, you have to assume there will be surprises. There are, in fact, a number of surprises attached to San Francisco's newest museum, like its location. Thanks to a deal struck by then-Mayor Willie Brown, the Museum of the African Diaspora, which has quickly adopted as acronym MoAD, takes up three floors in the city's newest hotel, the sleekly luxurious St. Regis. Then there's MoAD's logo, a three-story portrait of a charming Ghanaian girl with a pensive expression, which--Surprise!--turns into something else the closer a visitor gets. Denise Bradley.

Ms. DENISE BRADLEY (Executive Director, MoAD): This is the mural, the face of MoAD, which is composed of over 2,100 individual photographs, as you can see.

BATES: And it's not just American photos but family snapshots, news photos and portraits from around the globe, from Dakar to Delhi to Detroit and everywhere in between. Finally, there's the question that greets one formed by hundreds of tiny bits of reflective material when one walks through the doors: `When did you discover you were African?' That's a question not only for black visitors but for everyone who enters MoAD, since science now generally agrees that human life began in Africa. So we're all part of the African diaspora. At a reception for artists, Anne Yamaguchi(ph) explains why that message is so attractive.

Ms. ANNE YAMAGUCHI: The museum is telling us we all came from Africa, that we are all related. If people would really believe that, that would be a wonderful thing for the world.

BATES: By the time the party's under way in earnest, the workmen have disappeared, the staircases are finished, and the cash registers in the gift shop are scanning as they're supposed to. African drummers beat a welcome as hundreds of invited visitors stream through MoAD's first floor. Not everyone looks African, but many people, like blue-eyed Phil Trotter(ph), enjoy making their African connections.

Mr. PHIL TROTTER: It's beautiful. We're just appreciating it and getting really a first look around and learning when we knew we were from Africa.

BATES: There are myriad interactive exhibits here that take advantage of the newest new technology: digital-audio posts enable visitors to hear folk songs from around the globe; high-def screens show celebrations around the world--reunions, weddings, harvest festivals and coming-of-age ceremonies. But MoAD isn't focused only on celebration. A long narrow room serves as a memorial to the slave experience. It flashes oral histories on the darkened walls behind visitors. Denise Bradley says MoAD could neither ignore nor solely focus on slavery and its effect on the African diaspora.

Ms. BRADLEY: We wanted to sort of move on and sort of let go of a lot of, you know, those very painful memories, but I think it's important that people acknowledge that, you know, we were enslaved, just in terms of history not repeating itself.

BATES: On the second floor, Jill Cook, head of pre-history at London's British Museum, is showing visitors a few of the ancient African tools on loan to MoAD from her museum. One, a cutting instrument, is about the size of a large mango pit. Its elegantly chiseled edges sparkle in the light. These stone tools, Cook insists, are the font from which all human technological development springs.

Ms. JILL COOK (London's British Museum): That enormous leap forward for humankind puts us where we are today with our iPods and our aeroplanes. And it's just great to talk about Africa and technology in the same breath.

BATES: On the third floor, visitors inspect three installations specially commissioned for MoAD's opening. One, by San Francisco artist Mildred Howard, glitters under the light. It's an assemblage of domestic silver items--cups, urns, candelabra--that spill from the outline of a house frame made from scores of silvery table knives soldered together. Outside the frame are other knives, sharp ones, embedded in a nearby wall. Howard calls her installation "Safe House," and she says it asks a question that's an important part of the diasporan experience.

Ms. MILDRED HOWARD (San Francisco Artist): Well, I guess it also questions what is safe, what is home--what is home, whether it's your--the house where you reside or the United States of America or South America or Central America or someplace in the world.

BATES: What MoAD wants its visitors to leave pondering is where Africa's place in the world is. And after walking through the museum, the answer is obvious. Africa's place is everywhere. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

CHADWICK: And there's a link to the museum's Web site where you can preview some of the exhibits. Go to

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