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African-American history museum senior project manager: ‘I feel blessed’

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Posted at 5:05 AM, Sep 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-26 01:49:20-04

RICHMOND, Va. — The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened Saturday in Washington, D.C.

The senior project manager for the museum, Zena Howard, spoke with CBS 6 anchor Angie Miles Saturday night about her role in the monumental  undertaking.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Zena Howard, architect and project leader

Zena Howard, architect and project leader

When and how did you become involved in this project? And describe your role, in particular.

Sure, so when I became involved in this project was about eight years ago in 2008. I joined a team leading what was at that time a pursuit. We were competing against five other architectural firms to win this project. So I came on as the Senior Project Manager with Freelon as the lead architect. And we combined with three other architectural firms and we pursued the project and won the international design competition that Smithsonian sponsored.

So you coordinated with three other firms plus key consultants. How many consultants?

Thirty-one consultants in addition to the three other architecture firms, so yes…meeting and managing and coordinating those for the past eight years, so quite an effort.

For those who have not yet visited the museum, some of us may have heard that the layout involves slavery and some of the darker days of African American history on the lower floors and then moving progressively higher to brighter moments and greater accomplishments for African Americans. Can you talk a little bit about whether that progression is reflected in the design of the building itself?

Yes, so intentionally, even prior to the eight years that I’ve been on the project, for the two years prior, my firm did the conceptual layout of how the visitor should experience this wonderful culture and history. So we started out with the history gallery, and indeed, you’re right. You begin by descending down. You take a glass elevator, actually, and it drops you from the 1980s down to the 1400s, and progressing through significant periods over that hundreds and hundreds of years history. From the trans-Atlantic slave period, middle passage, to colonial American, through antebellum all the way up to 1968 and ending with President Barack Obama’s first inauguration as President, first African American President. Then coming out of that, because that’s a little intense, a little deep…and so there’s a moment of reflection that we’ve provided, that we’ve designed in the space. It’s a contemplative court with water that sort of streams down from an open skylit…what we call an occulis in the landscape…and it gives you a little bit of relief from that. And then you’re able to move up from that, as you stated, to community and at that level, you get to experience African American contributions to the military, education, politics, science, math. And then, from there, you get to proceed up to the fourth and final gallery…is culture…really, really great expression of African American contributions to music and art…visual arts…and our culture. And you learn about African American hair and how that has been defined over the years. And you see sports…our involvement in that. And then there’s some really fun, fun exhibits that everyone enjoys. You have um Chuck Berry’s Cadillac…wonderful, red Cadillac and um George Clinton’s mothership, which is awesome. I actually had the opportunity to take a photograph with him the other night in front of the mothership, so that was a highlight.

The Washington Monument is seen in the background as construction continues on the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture August 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The Washington Monument is seen in the background as construction continues on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture August 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Do you have a favorite space in the museum?

There are areas, you’ll see, high in the building where we’ve actually opened up the skin of the building and, the coronas of skin, panels reflective of skin that you’ll see. And we create vistas out to key areas in this wonderful place of America’s front yard, so there’s a nice, panoramic view of the entire Washington Monument grounds off the fourth floor balcony. Through design, we refer to it as a Juliette balcony, but you really get to experience the full volume of the space. You get to see all the way down to the lower level and so then at the same time, you get to look across the wonderful Washington Monument grounds, so this is just breathtaking, so that’s one of many favorite spaces of mine.

You’ve mentioned the word America several times in your description so far. A few days ago, the New York Times ran the full text of the Langston Hughes poem I, Too, Sing America. We understand that this museum is to affirm the beauty, the strength, the talent in the African-American community and in the African-American experience. But it sounds like you are suggesting that this museum is not just for African-Americans.

It was never envisioned as, it was never the mission of Lonnie Bunche, as the Museum Director in the Smithsonian, to be just the story of African Americans, because that’s not possible…because the African American story IS the American story. And so, to quote Lonnie Bunche, he is always…the Executive Director of the Museum, Lonnie Bunche has always said, ‘This is the American story told through the African American lens.” And you know, I think when people experience this for the first time…you know, this museum is going to educate a lot of people who may be ignorant about African-American culture and history and contribution, and I think once you allow yourself to be immersed in the content and the stories of this museum, you begin to see there’s no way– the two are inextricable. There’s no way to extract African Americans from American culture.

And the climate in the country today, me have described as divided or divisive, even. I’m wondering in this climate, in particular, how it feels to you personally to have been part of something like this. Personally, what does it mean to you to have been a part of making this monumental and historic place for all Americans?

Personally, it’s, you know, truly this has been an amazing journey. I feel blessed and humbled. I’m blessed by the existence of this building and contents. I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful people I’ve worked with and the relationships we’ve built, you know, through the eight years of working on this. But moreso, as an African American, as a female, and as a female in a profession that has such a dearth of women—and African American women, I feel blessed to have been a part of it. It’s been a unique experience. And I feel like finally now, in America, I personally have gone through this so I know that others feel there’s now an opportunity to discuss, to begin a conversation around culture and race and diversity. And these are the things that are going to help in some way to heal a lot of what is going on in what we see in cities like Charlotte and recent uprising and racial tension. I think it’s going to go a long way to begin that conversation that can lead to healing.