WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- After nearly a century of political infighting and delay, the Smithsonian Institution has selected a prominent space on the Mall near the Washington Monument as the site of its National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Black cultural, political and academic leaders, who labored for years to have the museum approved, met the selection yesterday by the Board of Regents, the institution's governing body, with elation. High-profile advocates of the museum, the institution's first dedicated to a comprehensive study of the black American experience, told Smithsonian officials that any location off the Mall would be viewed as a slight to African-Americans. In September 2004 the National Museum of the American Indian opened to much fanfare and high visibility in its location on the eastern edge of the Mall near the Capitol.
Some groups responded to the announcement with disappointment, arguing that the project would clutter the National Mall, the grassy expanse stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol. Smithsonian officials said the vote was not unanimous but would not give details. Officials said they hoped to open the new museum within the next decade.
"My first task for tomorrow is to stop smiling," said Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the museum. The selection of the 5-acre site allows Bunch to move forward with choosing an architect, as well as to begin raising money and acquiring collections. Cost estimates for the museum, the 19th in the Smithsonian complex, range from $300 million to $500 million. Fifty percent of the costs will be paid by the federal government, the other half by private sources. The building will probably be at least 350,000 square feet, roughly the same size as the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian officials said.
Bunch, former director of curatorial affairs for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, left a position as president of the Chicago Historical Society in July to lead the new project. He said it was "quite fitting that the experience of African-Americans take its place among the museums and monuments that make the National Mall a world-renowned location." He added that fundraising had already started and would be greatly aided by the site selection.
Lawrence M. Small, secretary of the Smithsonian, said the institution was committed to building "a remarkable museum that will inspire generations of future visitors from around the world with truly American stories of perseverance, courage, talent and triumph."
Richard D. Parsons, chairman and chief executive of Time Warner Inc. and a co-chairman of the museum's advisory council, said he planned to use America Online, which Time Warner owns, to create a virtual connection between the museum and potential donors, by offering links to the kinds of material and artifacts that the museum will ultimately contain.
"We are going to try to hit this at several levels," Parsons said in a telephone interview after the announcement. "We will reach out to the entire corporate community and the philanthropic community, but also just folks at very large levels and at the $5 and $10 level. And you can use online communities to reach these people in new and unique ways."
Supporters said the highly visible location, adjacent to the Washington Monument across the street from the National Museum of American History, acknowledged the centrality of the African-American experience in the country's development.
Efforts to build a national museum of black history began in the early 1900s but were repeatedly thwarted by political and social opposition well into the 1990s. In 1994, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina passionately blocked Senate passage of a bill authorizing the museum, saying that Congress should not have to "pony up" for the effort.
"Thank God," said Robert L. Wilkins, a Washington lawyer who headed the site selection committee on a presidential commission formed in 2002 to make recommendations for the museum to Congress. "Even though the building has not yet been constructed, I feel like we have finally fulfilled this long quest in an honorable and appropriate way."