If you've visited the National Mall in Washington, D.C. lately, you've undoubtedly seen the great progress being made on the construction of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The 400,000 square foot museum, projected to open in the Spring of 2016, was created in 2003 by an Act of Congress that established it as part of the Smithsonian Institution. Three years later, following an extensive study conducted by a Congressional Commission, the Smithsonian Board of Regents voted to build the museum on a site adjacent to the Washington Monument. While 13 years may seem like a very long time to most, those of us in D.C., know that in this town, things move slowly. I was reminded of this while reading a recent E.W. Scripps article about the NMAAHC's progress in which the NMAAHC Deputy Director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill said, "...that's breakneck speed in the nation's capital."
Ms. Conwill went on to say:
In D.C. terms, this is very short. If you complete a project within the lifetime of anyone working on it, you've achieved great things... By the time President Bush signed the legislation, 100 years had actually passed since it was first thought to honor African-American history and culture.
As one of the founders of the National Women's History Museum (NWHM), I know D.C. time all too well. NWHM was founded in 1996, following the efforts of a small group of women determined to move a seven-ton statue of the suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott from the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol to the Rotunda where it had been dedicated in 1921 as a thank you from the National Women's Party to Congress for passing the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. (Speaking of D.C. time -- let's remember, it took 72 years of campaigning to convince Congress to give us that right.)
NWHM educates, inspires, empowers and shapes the future by integrating women's distinctive history into the mainstream culture of the United States. One of our major objectives is to build a world-class national women's history museum at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. that will serve to educate all Americans about the critical and indispensable role women have played in our history. We've been at this for a long time. Nearly 20 years.
It's been a very frustrating process. We were originally informed that there were no remaining spaces for building on the Mall so we investigated multiple sites throughout Washington. We later learned that in fact, there IS one site left and chose to pursue it because we firmly believe a Museum representing 51 percent of the population belongs at the nation's premier civic space.
As you might expect, Congress oversees what can and cannot be built on or near the Mall and we petitioned the House and the Senate with various bills in every session of Congress beginning in 1999. Through the years the bills passed in either the House or Senate, but never both in the same Congress. That changed on December 12th of 2014, when Congress approved legislation to form a bipartisan Congressional Commission to produce a feasible plan for the Museum. The plan will consist of the Commission's recommendations for the governance, organizational structure, operations, fundraising and location of a national women's history museum. (The NMAAHC and the National Museum of the American Latino also went through this process. The key difference is that our legislation clearly states that the NWHM Commission would be 100 percent privately funded -- making it the first privately funded Congressional Commission for a national museum. In other words, this Commission won't cost taxpayers a dime.) According to the legislation, Congressional leadership in both the House and Senate are to name the commissioners this week. Once identified, the Commission will have 18 months to conduct its study and report its recommendations to Congress at which point Congress will then vote to approve the building.
Some of our supporters have wondered what's taking so long, and I can only point to the fact that as Ms. Conwill indicated, few things move quickly in this town. The good news is that today, we are closer than ever to making the Museum a reality.
It took a 72-year campaign for women to gain the vote. And, it took 100 years for the NMAAHC to become a reality. Similarly, it's taking a long time to overcome challenges to changing the perceptions of women and their role in building this nation and shaping our society. It's happening, but it's happening in D.C. time. Persistence is key and as Susan B. Anthony stated so very many years ago, "Failure is impossible!"