Black History Month

The Smithsonian Institution’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is slated to open in 2015. This museum will have the responsibility not of being the first or only site to address black history, for there are many sites that do so, but to serve a uniquely comprehensive, national purpose in its meaningful location on the National Mall. It is a tall order, and an important one, as discussed in this New York Times article from just over a year ago:

[Curator Richard] Rabinowitz said that [Director Lonnie] Bunch believed strongly in his museum’s mission, “not because he believes that black people have not been heard enough, but because he believes this is crucial to an understanding of this country for us all.”

Though this national museum will not open for three more years, museum audiences in the DC region interested in learning about and/or commemorating Black History Month have a number of sites to choose from, in February or at any time of the year. A Huffington Post article provides details on several.

A room in Mary McLeod Bethune Council House

A room in Mary McLeod Bethune Council House

In fall 2010, during my first round of Weekly Museum Visits, I visited the historic house museums of Frederick Douglass and Mary McLeod Bethune. That I visited them in two consecutive weeks is one reason they are linked in my mind. Additionally, both are National Park Service sites in DC; both are historic house museums that celebrate the contributions and ideals of African American leaders; and both of these individuals are people I chose for the Heroes on Stamps unit I developed at the National Postal Museum. (Here is information on stamps honoring Douglass and Bethune.) And finally, each house contains objects that demonstrate the individual’s love of an animal: dogs for Douglass and elephants for Bethune.

Frederick Douglass House

Frederick Douglass House

Black history is American history, and sections of the Greensboro, NC lunch counter are on display at both the National Museum of American History (NMAH) and the Newseum. (Some visitors believe that one of these sections is a replica, for how can they both be original? In fact, both of the sections on display in DC are small sections of a larger Woolworth’s lunch counter where four college students began a sit-in protest against segregation in 1960. The four actual chairs used by these men have never been moved from their original location, and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum now stands on the spot to showcase their legacy.)

The lunch counter displays in the Newseum and NMAH are interpreted via the power of theater. In the Newseum’s case, the counter sits in a mini-theater that plays a short film about the role of the press in the civil rights movement. At NMAH, live museum theater performances allow visitors to participate.

Below is a list of other sites in the region that relate to African American history:


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Articles and Books, Lists of Museums, Museums and Holidays, National Postal Museum, Newseum, Photos and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Black History Month

  1. Betsy says:

    How did I not remember that Mary McLeod Bethune had a soft spot for elephants? >_> The more you know… but sadly, I haven’t been to enough of these sites. Nice, relevant post!

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