For tourists from thousands of miles away or for schoolkids right in Washington, D.C., the first stop for anyone seeking a window into American democracy is usually the National Mall. For more than 200 years, however, the story it tells has been incomplete. Sure, the raft of museums and monuments impressively conveys the young nation’s rich history. But the Smithsonian Institutions, the official repositories of our collective memory, have long had a glaring omission: a space dedicated to the role of black Americans. That will finally change in September with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Almost 100 years ago, President Calvin Coolidge suggested a tribute to “the Negro’s contributions to the achievements of America.” But his efforts stalled, as did many others until 2003, when President George W. Bush signed legislation that made this arresting bronze building–designed by David Adjaye and just a stone’s throw from the Washington Monument–a reality.
Inside, the museum will tell a story that’s still being written, with artifacts ranging from a cabin occupied by South Carolina slaves to Harriet Tubman’s hymnal to cultural touchstones such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Prince’s tambourine. “This is a museum, like America, that is a work in progress,” says founding director Lonnie Bunch.
The great strength of the institution, says Bunch, is that it is not meant to tell only of the black experience. Rather, “it’s an attempt to say this is the quintessential American story,” he says. “This is everybody’s story.”
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.
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