Freelon reflects on recent Smithsonian groundbreaking

March 1, 2012
By Chris Saunders

President Barack Obama attended the groundbreaking ceremony last week for the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Phil Freelon ’75 leads the 32-consultant design team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup on the $500 million project slated to open in 2015.

Obama focused his remarks on the significance of the museum, the first national museum solely dedicated to African-American history and culture, and of its location on the National Mall.

“[I]t was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and freedom,” Obama said. “It was here that the pillars of our democracy were built, often by black hands. And it is on this spot…that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African-Americans have played in the life of our country.”

Photo by Peter Hutson.

Photo by Peter Hutson.

The project is  the latest in a long line of cultural museums that Freelon and his firm, The Freelon Group, have helped design.

We caught up with the award-winning architect to talk about the significance of the NMAAHC’s groundbreaking.

What were you feeling as you were there at the groundbreaking ceremony? It was an emotional moment and a proud moment. Turning the earth there on site brought a sense of reality to the project that was palpable. I was honored to just be a part of the process.

When you’re at a ceremony like this for one of your buildings, do you still get those kind of ‘pinch-me-I’m-dreaming’ moments? Sure. It’s always a thrill  to see a concept and an idea take physical form. It’s always new and exciting.

For you, what does it mean to have a hand in the first national museum solely dedicated to African-American history and culture? It’s humbling. It’s a high honor. I feel it’s something I’m well prepared for and something I prepared for my whole career. I feel our team is the right team at the right time. There were a series of steps, so when we talk about how we feel, it’s a process. The groundbreaking is one step. That starts one chapter.

When you hear President Obama echo the ghosts of black veterans of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman or the Tuskegee Airmen, does that put more pressure on you to make sure you get this right? Pressure isn’t the right word. It’s a sense of responsibility to tell the truth and make our ancestors proud.

The president talked about how, at moments like these, he thinks about his daughters. When you think about your own children and grandchildren, what do you want them to appreciate about this museum? I think of my family, my wife and my children, and then there are grandchildren and other extended family. And then there’s the African-American family. Those concentric circles go out and include a lot of people. It’s a proud moment. We’re part of the story now. The development of the building on this site is part of history. …That legacy will be there for folks to see long after we’re gone.

What are you most excited about seeing in the museum as a visitor? I would have to say the music component of the gallery. That’s so ingrained in my family. I know all the offerings are going to be magnificent.

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