NYT features frontpage story on the African American history museum on the Mall

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What story will it tell? As part of the Smithsonian, the museum bears the burden of being the “official” — that is, the government’s — version of black history, but it will also carry the hopes and aspirations of African-Americans. Will its tale be primarily one of pain, focused on America’s history of slavery and racial oppression, and memorializing black suffering? Or will it emphasize the uplifting part of the story, highlighting the richness of African-American culture, celebrating the bravery of civil rights heroes and documenting black “firsts” in fields like music, art, science and sports? Will the story end with the country’s having overcome its shameful history and approaching a state of racial harmony and equality? Or will the museum argue that the legacy of racism is still dominant — and, if so, how will it make that case?

Addressing a topic as fraught as race would be challenging anywhere, but it is particularly tricky within the Smithsonian, a complex of 19 museums that last year got $761 million from Congress. Efforts to tackle difficult topics often become politicized, torn between historians’ desire to treat issues with scholarly detachment and an expectation that the Smithsonian’s role is to honor the nation’s past.

The Air and Space Museum, for example, repeatedly ran into controversy over exhibits of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Meanwhile, the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, has been criticized as being overly reverential and lacking in historical perspective, because it presents its story primarily from an American Indian point of view.

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