The Smithsonian Institution’s new museum dedicated to black history and culture launched Sept. 26 with an interactive web site–long before its building opens for visitors on the National Mall.
Social-networking technology donated by IBM Corp. will allow visitors to help produce content for future exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Almost anything is fair game–long essays, short vignettes of memories, or recorded oral histories. The museum plans to add video capabilities in the future.
“The culture of the African American experience … is too important to wait five or 10 years until the building is open,” said Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director. “I wanted people to know that from the day I was hired, this museum exists.”
Museum staff will monitor the site for historical accuracy, and technical filters will block racist or inappropriate comments, said Bunch, adding that the site is really a “virtual museum” and a new source of research for curators, scholars, and students.
Museum officials began thinking about launching the web site during an explosion in the popularity of social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. That’s when Bunch and IBM Chairman Samuel Palmisano, who sits on the museum’s advisory board, got to talking. IBM eventually agreed to donate $1 million worth of hardware, software, and services to build the site.
“The museum thought, ‘Let’s harness this. Let’s build a social network that brings together people interested in the African American experience … all those people that are your visitors but who have great stories to tell,” said John Tolva, IBM’s senior manager for cultural programs.
One of the first contributions came from Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund and a member of the museum’s board. Lomax recalls when, at age 13, his mother moved him and his five brothers and sisters from Los Angeles to Tuskegee, Ala., to cover the civil-rights movement for Nation magazine. He submitted a story his mother wrote for the magazine, called “Journey to the Beginning,” which recounted his family’s encounter with the South in 1961.
“We traveled at first by automobile, and then our car broke down and we had to … travel by Greyhound bus from Arizona to Alabama. We thought of it as our family freedom ride,” Lomax told The Associated Press. “My mother was a writer accustomed to the privileges of the journalist. We found ourselves in a position where we no longer had privilege. We were being segregated, and we tried to stand up to it and were almost arrested.”
Lomax said everyone thought his mother was crazy to take her children to Alabama as a single mother during segregation. He said it was “horrifying and exhilarating at the same time” and an experience that changed his life.
Organizers said they hope people of all ages and backgrounds will post messages on the site.
“You’ve got the sort of historical materials on major people and major moments linked directly to the kind of bottom-up recollections of common folk,” Tolva said. “You can link, visually depict, how your memory relates to the other kind of grand narratives of African American history–the narratives of civil rights, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. DuBois.”
The museum announced a similar partnership in February with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with hopes of recording about 2,000 oral histories from black families over the next year, to be placed in the museum’s archives. The StoryCorps Griot project has been traveling across the country to collect recordings.
By opening the museum online, potential donors see that the museum is alive long before its estimated 2015 opening on the National Mall, said Bunch, who is working to raise half the museum’s $500 million cost, with Congress providing the other half.
The museum is opening its first physical exhibit, “Let Your Motto Be Resistance,” in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 19 at the National Portrait Gallery. It traces 150 years of history through 100 photographs of well-known abolitionists, scholars, artists, and athletes who challenged negative attitudes about race and class.