Assembling Artifacts Of African-American History In a vast warehouse off an undistinguished highway in Maryland, storage cartons and suitcases hold the treasures of the as-yet-unbuilt National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

Assembling Artifacts Of African-American History

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The inauguration of the first African-American president is especially anticipated by the small but determined staff of a Smithsonian museum that won't exist until 2015, at least not in bricks and mortar. Still, NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg found that the vast warehouse of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture is filling up with pieces of our past and future.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Off an undistinguished highway somewhere in deepest Maryland, there are cartons full of treasures, evidence, remnants of disgrace and great pleasure. Here's a suitcase that I would find in my basement, so why should that be in the Smithsonian?

LONNIE BUNCH: Well, let's open it and see.



STAMBERG: A museum staffer reveals a gleaming musical instrument. It's a trumpet.

STAMBERG: And Michelle(ph) has put on her white curator's gloves, taken the trumpet out of the case. Oh my gosh, this was Louis Armstrong's trumpet?


BUNCH: And they don't let me touch it.

STAMBERG: Not without gloves.

STAMBERG: Lonnie Bunch is director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Although when told his title could take up our entire program, Mr. Bunch offers an alternative.

BUNCH: I'm some guy from Jersey trying to make it in the big city. There it is. (Laughing)

STAMBERG: Like all the objects being collected, Louis Armstrong's 1927 trumpet can be appreciated on many levels.

BUNCH: Looking at it as the sort of wonderful sound to tap your toe, but then it's also a way to understand what the music tells us about black life and American life.

STAMBERG: A poor kid in New Orleans, through his music, Louis Armstrong became an ambassador to the world.


STAMBERG: A scarring part of the African-American story is told in two rusted metal cuffs attached to a long bar. They are shackles from the late 18th century, extremely rare objects. Most were destroyed or lost. Chief Curator Jackie Stirwhir says the shackles kept slaves immobile while ships carried them from Africa to the New World.

JACKIE STIRWHIR: There's hardly enough room for a leg. They often walked around with the flesh of their legs raw, because this metal would rub against their legs. And they were, of course, often attached to each other, they were attached to places where they slept. And so it was an instrument of torture.

STAMBERG: But historian Lonnie Bunch sees something else.

BUNCH: In some ways, a sacred object. This is an object that spoke of a people saying, how do we start anew in a place that didn't see us as a human? This is going to allow us to tell one of the most difficult stories in America, but tell it in a way that helps people understand that the slave story is the quintessential American story. This is the story that shaped our notions of who we are, shaped our abilities to create the economic engine that led to America, it obviously brought millions of people to a new world, and changed the way this country would be.

STAMBERG: The director of the Museum of African-American History and Culture says he makes a point of touching these shackles every day he can.

BUNCH: This is the closest I come to understanding my slave ancestors.

STAMBERG: So blacks will encounter their history in these shackles and other artifacts of slavery. But, Dr. Bunch declares, so will every other visitor. He thinks you can't comprehend what it means to be an American without including the African-American experience.

BUNCH: Whether you've been in this country, your family's been in this country 200 years or 20 minutes ago, I want you to come through this museum and say, I get it. This is not a black story, this is my story. This is the American story.

STAMBERG: I have to say, as a white person I look at this, and I feel terrible guilt...

BUNCH: Mm-hmm.

STAMBERG: On the part of my race, for having inflicted this.

BUNCH: Well, I think part of what history does is that it illuminates guilt, it illuminates the dark corners. But I think that only by illuminating guilt can you then wrestle with it.

STAMBERG: Twenty-first-century history is being gathered, too. Right after Election Day, museum staffers raced to an Obama campaign office in Falls Church, Virginia, to grab objects before they hit the dumpster. Banners, magic marker signs painted by children - "Find Your Precinct," "Kids for Obama." Could those kids have imagined their artwork would be in a museum? Also saved for the ages, a big beat up, brown corduroy chair. It's a La-Z-Boy.

BUNCH: A campaign headquarters is really a home. The people live there, they put so much time in it. I bet people fought over to get the chance to take their nap in that La-Z-Boy.

STAMBERG: And while they wait for other campaign memorabilia, Lonnie Bunch says the election of Barack Obama epitomizes his museum's main goal, to redefine and clarify what it means to be American.

BUNCH: He has claimed his American-ness, without being shy, without saying, oh, I'm a black American. He says, I'm an American who is African-American.

STAMBERG: But you know, in the end, it's certainly a racial triumph, not just for him, but for people of every color in this country. But doesn't it negate the reason to have a separate museum on African-American history, since you now have an African-American in charge of it all?

BUNCH: Not at all. Because first of all, the election of one person doesn't mean that race is no longer an issue, doesn't mean that we've resolved every issue. And even if we did, to understand how we got there, that's what this museum will help you understand.

STAMBERG: But so much of African-American history is the history of tragedy and of brutality. I would think it's a little hard to think through showing triumph, and deciding how to do that.

BUNCH: The African-American experience has never simply been about tragedy. It has really been about difficulty and resiliency, tragedy and optimism, belief in a world that didn't want you to be equal, but you believed that you were equal.


STAMBERG: In 2015, when the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture opens on the Mall in Washington, the country's first African-American president may still be in office, as our history continues being defined. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: To get a look at the Louis Armstrong trumpet that's at the African-American History collection, go to And while you're there, you'll find more stories on museums in the 21st century.


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