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National Museum Of African American History Prepares For Grand Opening


The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture is still a construction zone, and it is just 10 days from opening. Still, NPR's Sam Sanders got a tour of the museum on the National Mall in Washington.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Today was media day at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Fleur Paysour welcomed about 300 journalists.

FLEUR PAYSOUR: My, my, my, what a crowd.

SANDERS: Inside the space, there were just as many hardhats as reporters. You could hear drills humming on every floor, even as a grand opening is set for 10 days from now. Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the museum. And this morning, he reminded people just how far the museum has come from a dream of black Civil War veterans over a century ago from still just being a dream last decade.

LONNIE BUNCH: 11 years ago, we really did start this with a staff of two, no collections at all. We really had even no idea exactly where the site of the museum would be. We knew we had to raise a lot of money, but we didn't know where we were going to get that money from. All we knew is that we had a vision.

SANDERS: And it's quite the vision. It's hard to overstate just how much work has gone into the museum. There are artifacts like a Jim-Crow-era segregated train car that was lowered underground years ago.

And so this train car was down here how long before the thing was done?

ROBERT ANDERSON: Before they put the roof on it, so that was four years ago - I think it was - that we dropped that down.



SANDERS: And it just sat here until it was built around.

ANDERSON: Yeah, they built it in a casework around the thing to protect it, but it was the first artifact to come into the building.

SANDERS: That was Robert Anderson, one of the museum's architects. Damion Thomas, curator of the sports section of the museum - he walked me through an Olympics display.

DAMION THOMAS: We have nine of Carl Lewis' 10 Olympic medals.

SANDERS: Where's the 10th?

THOMAS: The 10th medal is buried with his father.

SANDERS: This is the kind of dedication donors have shown in the museum. Thomas says many, including lots of regular people you've never heard of, gave big parts of their lives to this museum.

THOMAS: That's been what's been most amazing about this journey for me - that people have opened up their homes and entrusted us with their most prized possessions.

SANDERS: As big as the museum of African-American History and Culture is and as much stuff is in there, not everything could fit. There are thousands of artifacts on display, but that's just a fraction of all that was collected.

BILL PRETZER: We started with no artifacts - zero artifacts. We now about 37,000 artifacts in the museum's collection. We are displaying around 3,000 of those 37,000.

SANDERS: Where are the other 34,000?

PRETZER: They are in the Smithsonian storage facility.

SANDERS: That's Bill Pretzer, another curator at the museum. He told me that even with all they've collected so far, the work isn't over yet.

PRETZER: We will be collecting ad nauseum, and we will continue to collect on issues that we think are important for future exhibitions. As a matter of fact, opening the museum is - starts the work.

SANDERS: Curator Telani Sela-hu Dean just wants one point to be made clear when the public finally does see the museum.

TELANI SELA-HU DEAN: African-Americans - we have been marginalized. However, we are not marginal - that we have been central to this country from its founding to the very present.

SANDERS: The Museum of African-American History and Culture opens to the public September 24. Sam Sanders, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.