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African American Museum in Washington: a century of delays

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A century after the project was conceived in the throes of racial segregation, and a few months before the first black US president leaves office, the African American Museum in Washington opens Saturday.

[WASHINGTON] A century after the project was conceived in the throes of racial segregation, and a few months before the first black US president leaves office, the African American Museum in Washington opens Saturday.

Here are key facts about the first national museum devoted entirely to showcasing African Americans' life, history and culture.

The effort to open, in the US capital, a museum dedicated to the history of the black community "began more than 100 years ago," said the Smithsonian Institution, a public-private complex that runs most of the museums in Washington.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be the Smithsonian's 19th and newest museum.

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Former African American soldiers, civil-war veterans of the US Coloured Troops and subjugated to racial discrimination, formed in 1915 a "Committee of Coloured Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic" to create a monument that would celebrate their community's contribution to US history.

"This joyous day was born out of a century of fitful and frustrated efforts to commemorate African American history in the nation's capital," said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the new museum, at a news conference.

After years of false starts and political warfare, legislation co-sponsored by John Lewis, a major leader of the civil rights movement and US congressman representing the southern state of Georgia, finally was approved by Congress, paving the way for the museum.

The bill was signed into law by Republican President George W Bush in 2003.

"Opening the museum has involved the efforts of presidents and members of Congress," the Smithsonian noted.

In 2006, the institution allocated a building site on the National Mall, the grassy esplanade - home to major museums and monuments - stretching from the US Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial.

Ground was broken for the 400,000-square-foot (37,000-square-metre) building in Feb 2012.

In Nov 2013, the first two objects - among the most powerful - were installed in the partially constructed building: a restored railway car from around 1920, used during the segregation era, and a tower from a prison in the southern state of Louisiana.

In Oct 2014, the last structural piece was installed, and three months later the work on the exterior, featuring lacy, bronze-coloured panels made of cast aluminum, was finished.

The Sept 24 opening date was announced in Feb 2015, even before the installation of the windows and the 3,600 exterior panels weighing 230 tonnes.

President Barack Obama, who leaves office in January, will attend the dedication ceremony and is expected to deliver a speech.

His predecessor, George W Bush, also will attend.

"Now at last, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is open for every American and the world to better understand the African American journey and how it shaped America," Mr Bunch, the museum director, told reporters.

The historic dedication "honours the dreams of many generations and thousands of people who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to make this dream a reality," he said.

The museum cost US$540 million. Half of the funds, or US$270 million, were provided by US taxpayers, while the remainder was raised from private donations.

The museum has more than 34,000 objects - nearly half of which were donated - that it will selectively display on its seven levels and in its 12 galleries.

Only about 10 per cent of the objects will be on permanent display.

According to the Smithsonian, the museum has built "a collection designed to illustrate the major periods of African American history, beginning with the origins in Africa and continuing through slavery, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and into the 21st century".

AFP

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