Museum Seeks Capitol Site

Posted March 28, 2003 at 6:21pm

If a presidential commission charged with recommending a site for the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture gets its way, the Capitol grounds could soon get its first museum.

The report, which is slated to be submitted to Congress on Wednesday, will recommend a triangular site adjacent to the Capitol Reflecting Pool between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues Northwest, according to a source familiar with the report.

The location now provides parking and staging space for the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, which is expected to be completed in 2005. Congress has control over what, if anything, is built on this site.

Four other sites are also under consideration: the National Mall between 14th and 15th streets Northwest; overlooking the Southwest waterfront at the end of L’Enfant Promenade; the Liberty Loan building on 14th Street just south of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing; and the Arts and Industries building on Independence Avenue.

A preliminary diagram of the facility intended for the Capitol site, issued in a December 2002 Preferred Site Analysis Report, envisaged a four-story structure with a public entrance on the western portion of the site. The building would be located on the eastern half of the site to avoid complications caused by the Third Street tunnel under the western half.

While the preferred site offers many benefits in terms of visitor accessibility and visibility, questions remain as to its availability and the precedent for building a museum on Capitol grounds.

In fact, legislation designating the site as a Congressional Youth Awards Garden has already been passed, and the Architect of the Capitol has been directed to manage and organize a design competition for the garden — the status of which remains unclear.

And no one has ever submitted a proposal for a museum on Capitol grounds, according to the December report.

While he declined to go into detail, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a commission member, said the panel had considered any potential complications associated with the site.

The forthcoming report follows several months of town hall meetings and surveys by the 22-member commission, which held its final public meeting before the report’s presentation last week at the District’s Washington Court Hotel.

In addition to site location and cost, the commission’s report will make recommendations regarding the availability of collections for the museum, the impact of a national museum on regional African-American museums, and its governance and organizational structure.

The commission is expected to recommend that the museum — not estimated to open for at least six to 10 years — be a full-fledged member of the Smithsonian Institution, subordinate to its board of regents.

Still, Project Manager George McDonald said the museum’s board would like to assume a strong fundraising role, as well as maintain some control over the selection of a director and the museum’s program and collections policy. The commission’s surveys also found overwhelming support among regional African-American museums for the creation of a national museum, and officials anticipate securing collections through a combination of loans, donations and purchases.

The estimated $300 million to $350 million required to complete a museum at the preferred site will be funded through a public-private partnership, initially projected to be a 75/25 split, said the source.

“I don’t think a project of this magnitude can work without a public-private partnership,” asserted commission Chairman Robert Wright, adding that he anticipated few problems securing the necessary private-sector funds. The commission received its first major donation — $1 million — from the insurance giant AFLAC Inc. last November.

In the coming weeks, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), along with Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), plans to introduce legislation supporting the recommendations in the commission’s report.

“We are looking for the president to add some funding for the museum in his budget,” said Candice Tolliver, Lewis’ press secretary.

Lewis estimated the request for fiscal 2004 would fall in the $25 million to $35 million range, and he expects the legislation to be approved “long before the end of the year.”

Brownback said that Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has indicated he will make the legislation a priority in committee. (The bill will also be submitted to the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Administration committees.)

Lewis, who has worked for well over a decade to secure “a place where people can walk through and almost touch and face history” — says the creation of a national museum for African-Americans would go a long way to healing the United States’ racial divide.

Likewise, Wright emphasized that the commission would take special care to ensure that the museum comprises the aggregate experience of Americans of African descent in this country.

“The No. 1 concern [is] that this museum tells the whole story from slavery up to the present time, that nothing be omitted or left out or glossed over,” Wright said.

“I just think to have something like this in Washington, in the nation’s capital, would just help make America better,” Lewis concluded.