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Museum plans transparent
There are important lessons to be learned from the story of two museums about black history

 A model shows the design concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
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Date published: 1/27/2011

By Ed Jones

LET'S CALL it a bitter- sweet confirmation of what we already knew.

Nowhere in Sunday's lengthy New York Times report on "The Thorny Path to a National Black Museum" was there any mention of the project that was to rise in Fredericksburg's Celebrate Virginia.

The article focused on the financial and cultural challenges facing the National Museum of African American History and Culture, planned for a corner of the National Mall in Washington. Meanwhile, all that seems to remain of Fredericksburg's U.S. National Slavery Museum are an unattended sculpture garden, an inert website and an overdue tax bill.

What can we learn from this turn of events?

The first lesson, of course, is that the road will never be easy for a major new project nurtured during a time of economic distress.

That's why the tough times call on project supporters to be even more open and transparent. How do you hope to rally support for a good cause if you're unwilling to share the good and the bad with the community?

Contrast the openness and candor of Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director of the D.C. museum, with the bunker mentality that marked the Fredericksburg project. The slavery museum's would-be founder, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was perennially unavailable for comment.

Tough but legitimate questions from the media and the public were characterized as insults. Some museum supporters did the project no favors by putting up with that kind of closed-door approach.

Still, even with its openness and candor, D.C.'s National Museum of African American History and Culture faces a formidable array of key questions, many of them raised in the Times piece, if it is to accomplish its 2015 opening successfully. Many of these questions have to do with the still-sensitive issues surrounding any discussion of race relations in this country.

Since the D.C. Museum will be part of the Smithsonian Institution, how will this "official" version of African-American history be shaped? Will it focus on the atrocities of slavery, the joy of civil-rights advances, the celebration of black culture or some combination of all of the above?

What will make this new museum different from the African-American history displays within the neighboring National Museum of American History?

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