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New Smithsonian shows rich Black history

JESSE J. HOLLAND | 8/29/2016, 9:54 a.m.
Lonnie Bunch leans forward to peer inside a slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina. The dark and cramped interior ...
A slave cabin from Poolesville, Maryland, is on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. The museum's grand opening is set for Sept. 24. Paul Holston

WASHINGTON (AP) – Lonnie Bunch leans forward to peer inside a slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina. The dark and cramped interior defies his attempts to showcase the small living space its occupants subsisted on.

He flips on the flashlight on a borrowed smartphone, illuminating for his guests the craftsmanship, the hard work and the love that the cabin’s former occupants put into what little they had.

The unification of the old and the new, and the use of modern techniques to explain the historical past – that’s what the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Bunch, its founding director, are striving for when the newest Smithsonian museum opens on the National Mall next month. President Barack Obama will help dedicate the museum on Sept. 24.

Proud of the striking, dark brown angular museum, Bunch sees its goal as helping all Americans understand and appreciate the rich cultural history of African Americans, and to shine a light on the contributions and achievements of Blacks to what the United States has become.

“This is an opportunity to take an amazing culture, and understand what it means to be an American through this lens,” he said as he toured observers around a special sneak peek inside the building.

The museum is designed to take visitors through African American history in the United States from slavery, on the lower level, to a reproduction of Oprah Winfrey’s television set upstairs and artifacts from Obama’s first presidential campaign. The slavery exhibits are in rooms with small cramped walls to simulate slave ships. Also, there are pieces of an actual slave ship, the São José-Paquete de Africa, which wrecked off the coast of South Africa while carrying more than 400 enslaved people from Mozambique.

The slave cabin, from the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, is one of the largest exhibits and was dismantled and reconstructed piece by piece inside the new museum. While the names of the slaves who lived inside the cabin are unknown, Bunch said the exhibit is a good way to help humanize the people who lived through slavery and to help explore the meaning of their lives.

“What’s important about this is that while slavery was a system that controlled people, it was also a system where people built homes and families and tried to sort of craft a life as best they could,” he said.

Interior construction is nearly done, Bunch said, as he led a group of journalists around wires and exhibits still under construction: Parliament Funkadelic’s Mothership is completely covered, although its distinctive shape is instantly recognizable; a Maya Angelou quote placard “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” sits on a table waiting to be affixed to a wall along with quotes from Obama, Nikki Giovanni and Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza; and the playbill announcing Ira Aldridge as the first Black man to play Shakespeare’s Othello in 1857 in England is hidden behind brown paper on the wall to keep it safe.