Photo: Gallery entrance to the Changing America exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Two fundamental advances in the American story, and how those actions affected this country, have been vividly celebrated in the “Changing America” exhibition at the National Museum of American History. The installation, created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, examined the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1893 and the March on Washington in 1963.
Only a few days are left to visit this innovative show that looks at this central arc of 100 years and not only explains the past but underscores the ongoing battles for equality in America. The exhibit closes Sunday September 7.
Photo: Tintype of African American soldier. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from the Liljenquist Family Collection.
Entering the exhibition, the visitor can choose to first study the world of 1863. Many people, free, enslaved and sympathetic, challenged the system of slavery. The display of Nat Turner’s bible illustrates how powerful individuals were in this fight and how electrifying were the slave rebellions. The conditions that marked the hardships of slavery are captured in many items, including child shackles. The fight to maintain slavery is illustrated in the ads for runaways. How Abraham Lincoln came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, the document considered a turning point in the country’s history, is part of the compelling narrative.
Yet, 100 years later, more than 250,000 people needed to march in the capitol to let the country and its leaders know the goal of equality, halted by segregation, lynching and minimal jobs, had not been attained. They gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, which had become a place for celebration and protest since it was dedicated in 1922 and since the great contralto Marian Anderson had sung in 1939. The 1963 event is brought to life in posters, photographs and video of the day’s historic oratory, including Rev. Martin L. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Photo: March on Washington organizing manual, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The stories remind people that these watershed events in 1893 and 1963 were not singular acts but part of a progression that will be reflected in the many narratives the museum will tell. Some of the visitors’ comments have reflected the power of these twin stories. “We have evolved from slaves to proud leaders,” wrote an 11-year-old. Noting that 50 years is not that long ago, a 48-year-old woman wrote “this march is my foundation, my beacon of the power of endurance and my peoples’ spirit of survival.”
After the artifacts are taken down, they are being prepared for the inaugural exhibitions for the museum’s opening in 2016. Artifacts that belonged to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, glass shards from the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in 1963 and the pocket watch of Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 march, will be among the many prepared for display and their everlasting lessons.
For more information on the exhibition collection please visit: http://bit.ly/XW9wbc
Written by Jacqueline Trescott.