African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center Act
STATEMENT OF ROBERT VOGEL, ACTING DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE ENERGY & NATURAL RESOURCES SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, CONCERNING S. 391, TO ESTABLISH THE AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND INTERNATIONAL MEMORIAL MUSEUM AND EDUCATIONAL CENTER IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
July 19, 2017
Chairman Daines, Ranking Member Hirono, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the Department of the Interior’s views on S. 391, to establish the African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center in New York, New York, and for other purposes.
While the Department understands that a memorial museum at the site of the African Burial Ground National Monument (Monument) was first recommended by a Federal steering committee in 1992, there has been no comprehensive study of the proposal that addresses the purpose, need, feasibility, or cost to establish an associated museum or a study that evaluates alternatives for such a facility. Without having the necessary information to evaluate this proposal, the Department opposes S. 391 at this time.
S. 391 would establish at the African Burial Ground National Monument a memorial museum and educational center to be known as the “African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center” (Museum) to serve as a permanent living memorial to the enslaved who are buried at the African Burial Ground and to other enslaved Africans and African-Americans. The Museum would examine the African cultural traditions brought to the United States by the enslaved and explore in-depth the institution of slavery in the United States and other parts of the world. Many of these themes and concepts are already embraced and presented by the Monument in its present visitor facility and memorial. In the absence of a study or plan that specifically explores this concept, we have little information about how the Museum is meant to relate to the Memorial.
The site encompassed by the Monument is among the oldest, and is the largest known urban burial site of enslaved and free Africans in the United States. The site is one of the most significant archeological discoveries in the 20th century – with an estimated 15,000 burials. The Monument provides the opportunity to study, contemplate, and discuss the history and implications of the African Diaspora and redefines and makes accessible to all the history and contributions of Africans in the building of the Americas.
The Monument consists of designed urban space that encompasses a plaza, sculptural elements and seven burial mounds, the location of the re-interred remains from the burial ground. A large 24-foot granite sculpture resembles the prow of a ship and symbolically references the journey from and back home to Africa. Passing through the threshold of the “ship,” one encounters a large map depicting the African Diaspora. A spiral ramp provides access back out to the street level past carved symbols from many of the world’s religions and African cultural groups.
The visitor center for the Monument opened in February 2010, and is located on the first floor of the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway. The visitor center exhibits are divided into four main topics. The central theme speaks to the experiences, rituals, and customs of the people who used the burial ground. Another area explores the science behind the analysis of the buried remains. A third exhibit area addresses the nature of slavery and the lives of those enslaved. The fourth area examines the activism throughout the New York community that brought the burial ground to the attention of the world and led to its preservation.
This bill would direct the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) to acquire or lease property for the Museum that is located adjacent to the Monument or in any other area of the National Landmark, and to plan, design, and construct the Museum at that location. The Monument would be expanded to incorporate the Museum property, which would nearly double the size of the Monument and require the acquisition or lease of property in a very expensive and complex real estate market. Given ample opportunities for programmatic relationships with the institutions named in this bill, the need for the acquisition of land and the development of a costly new facility is not clear.
S. 391 would direct the Secretary to operate the museum in consultation with the bill’s proposed Advisory Council and to assume responsibility for the accession, preservation, restoration, and maintenance of a museum collection. While the National Park Service (NPS) does retain, manage, and curate museum collections, the operation of museums is not part of our normal administrative model. Typically, the NPS has collection repositories that are research-focused but do not function as traditional museums. NPS exhibit spaces are generally interpretive in nature and have few museum objects on display. This is in part because exhibits with accessioned museum objects on display require investment in substantively higher levels of physical security and environmental standards. Such exhibits also require access to professional curatorial staff, which is not available in the NPS workforce. These variables would make it very difficult for NPS to operate or provide support to a museum facility like one that is proposed in this bill.
It is not clear how this museum will relate to or be distinguished from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC. The bill provides broad outlines of subjects that the NMAAHC already includes in their exhibits and directs an association between the NMAAHC and the Museum. This direction has the potential for overlap between the two sites and may be redundant in the representation of certain subjects.
Chairman Daines, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.