SAH News

Mabel O. Wilson: Shining a Light on New National African American Museum

by Georgette Jasen | Sep 27, 2016
To write the book about the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mabel O. Wilson pored over architecture drawings and environmental impact reports, and interviewed dozens of people involved in the project, including architects, a structural engineer, and John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Georgia Congressman who helped win government support for its construction.

The result is Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the official Smithsonian Institution history of its 19th museum, which opens on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on Sept. 24.

“My goal was to show people the ways buildings tell the stories of places and people,” said Wilson (GSAPP’91), a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning and a senior fellow at the Institute for Research in African American Studies.

Wilson has her own design studio in New York, called Studio &, and was a finalist, with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in the competition to design the new museum. “I had the architectural perspective and I had the historical perspective,” she said. Her previous book was Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums. She came to Columbia in 2007 with a Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University.

The history of the new museum goes back to 1915 and a campaign by the Grand Army of the Republic to build the first monument to honor black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. It became an effort to create a museum, a place for African Americans to understand their contributions to the nation. That effort was derailed by fund-raising difficulties and then the Depression. The idea was revived by dedicated citizens and civic leaders several times until 2003, when President George W. Bush authorized the museum’s creation and Congress approved an expenditure of $270 million.

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