How to Build a Museum

Lynn: The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors in September 2016. It’d been a long time coming—100 years since the idea of a “Monument at the Capital in Honor of the Negro Soldiers and Sailors Who Fought in the Wars of our Country,” was proposed by the National Memorial Association in 1916. Efforts came and went, commissions were established and discarded, but the dream lived on. It wasn’t until 2003 that President Bush signed the bill that established the NMAAHC.

So how do you build a museum, especially one so overdue? Tonya Bolden answers that question in her fascinating book How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016).

How to Build a Museum by Tonya BoldenI love the way this book is organized! Bolden first gives readers historical background then, in each chapter, explains a step in the actual process of building, staffing and filling this new and important museum. I think kids will especially love the sections on architecture and design; the pictures of the construction site are fascinating, including amazing pictures of how crews rebuilt an entire railroad car into its display site. Bolden’s writing is informative, but also lively and appealing. Any reader who watches the development of the NMAAHC through the pages of this book will long to visit—and what an enhanced experience it will be!

Cindy:  When Lynn told me she’d gotten her hands on this book, I was excited. I’ve seen a number of interviews on 60 Minutes with Director Lonnie Bunch in recent years that addressed the monumental task of building a museum from scratch. (Check out this CBS Sunday Morning clip of Quincy Jones nervously preparing for the museum’s dedication ceremony.) For those of us (like me) who haven’t yet had the chance to visit the museum, the last part of Bolden’s book highlights the themes of the permanent exhibits and some of their treasures.

I talked with someone recently who complained about the design of the building. I wish I’d read this book earlier, as it explains how the building’s inverse pyramid shape relates to Yoruban sculpture and West African influences. Also discussed are the bronze filigree panels that are “an homage to black ironworkers, enslaved and free, who designed and forged thousands of fences, gates, and other decorative metal for mansions and public buildings in New Orleans, Louisiana and Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1800s and 1900s.” The book design incorporates this bronze filigree in the borders of its pages.

The Smithsonian Institution now has 19 museums and a fuller picture of our country’s history, and readers have another beautiful book from Tonya Bolden. It couldn’t come at a better time. May we all learn something from it all.




About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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