Museum of African American History displays range from slavery to Prince

Opening next month in Washington, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture investigates 400 years of US society

From slave shackles to Princes tambourine: when the Smithsonians African American museum opens next month, it will offer visitors a layered journey through the long and complicated history of black people in America written in artifacts large and small, old and new.

Most of the museums larger installations a guard tower from the Angola prison in Louisiana; the Parliament-Funkadelic mothership retrieved from frontman George Clintons home have been in place since at least this spring. Many, like the guard tower, which was transported more than 1,000 miles on the back of an oversized flatbed truck, had to be in place before the building could even be finished.

But as the public opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture draws near, the Smithsonian has released details about some of the artifacts that, while physically smaller, still represent monumental moments in the history of black Americans. The list spans some 400 years of US society, from the barbarism of the slave trade to the outsized cultural achievements of black Americans in decades past.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch stands in front of one of the museums engraved walls. Photograph: Paul Holston/AP
Arranged chronologically from the buildings basement up through its three glass stories, exhibitions about pre-colonial, pre-enslavement Africa greet visitors. In short order, the exhibitions turn to the transatlantic trade that brought more than 12 million Africans to the western hemisphere in shackles, displaying a genuine pair of 17th- or 18th-century iron wrist locks.

They are probably one of the most poignant objects we have in our collection, said Kinshasha Holman, deputy director of the museum. Its something that doesnt ever allow us to forget that we as African Americans were born of a county built on the enslavement and the ownership of human beings.

If these shackles could speak, they would say it took the resources of an entire society to create slave ships, said Charles Johnson, scholar and author of the historical novel Middle Passage. Everyone in slave-trading societies, even those who never owned a slave, was implicated.

The original ambrotype portrait an early form of photography captured on glass of Frederick Douglass is on display marking the nations fight for abolition and subsequent civil war. The abolitionist, speaker, writer and freedman was also the most photographed American of the 19th century. Deborah Willis, a scholar of African American photography at New York University, said Douglass believed the emerging technology of photography was a powerful instrument of racial uplift.

According to Willis, Douglass believed photos could challenge the racist caricatures of black people that pervaded the United States and beyond with images that communicated black humanity, self-worth and achievement.

In the 1940s, in the pre-dawn of the civil rights era, Dr Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie conducted what may be one of the most far-reaching social science studies of the 20th century. Clarks doll tests demonstrated the way white supremacist ideology infects black people at miraculously young ages, asking black schoolchildren from segregated and unsegregated schools to pick whether they preferred a white or a black doll. The Clarks findings, that black children from segregated schools were more likely to prefer white dolls, factored in the landmark supreme court decision in Brown v Board of Education that made segregation illegal in the US. One pair of black and white dolls used in the experiments are exhibited in the museum as well.

An exhibit depicts the life and presidency of Barack Obama and his family. Photograph: Paul Holston/AP

Fast-forward through time about 50 years: the museums third floor will feature a tambourine from Princes 1990 Nude tour. He was always looking forward, working to expand his knowledge and understanding, said Sheila E, a musician and longtime Prince collaborator. He pushed every boundary of art and challenged every concept of the way things were supposed to be, in music and life.

The music section of the museum also features singer Chuck Berrys trademark red Cadillac and film reels of jazz musician Cab Calloways home movies.

More than 100 years in the making, plans for an African American history museum in the nations capital date back to a 1915 meeting of black Union army veterans, frustrated with discrimination and racism. Their efforts led to a presidential commission gathered by Herbert Hoover, but little else. The idea was essentially mothballed for more than half a century before re-emerging in the 1970s on the heels of civil rights advances.

The now realized museum, in a prominent location on the national mall and in the shadow of the Washington monument, was approved in 2003 and architects broke ground in 2012, with Barack Obama in attendance. In September, the nations outgoing first black president will help celebrate its grand opening.

The president will be prominently featured in the museums A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond exhibition, which illustrates the impact of African Americans on social, economic, political and cultural life. The exhibit spans from the death of Martin Luther King Jr to Obamas second election and features dozens of pieces of campaign memorabilia from his historic 2008 and 2012 victories.

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