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Take a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Inside Smithsonian's new museum
Inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture 03:03

A century in the making, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors to the public on Sept. 24.

Wrapped in bronze and inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in West African art, the museum shines brightly near the center of the National Mall. 

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture   CBS News

“On the Mall, it’s mainly white marble, and I thought could we do something that gave a little color to this,” said Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director.

“In more ways than one,” “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King pointed out.

“And that’s what I realized,” Bunch said.

But to get a sense of the African-American experience, you’ll have to go below the surface, five stories down.

“At its peak, between 15 and 18 people would be in that cabin,” Bunch said, describing a cabin for slaves.

The shackles small enough to restrain a child are reminders of America’s regretful past, while a stool from a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter represents the resolve to move beyond segregation.  

Stool from a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter  CBS News

“What I see is something very simple. Sitting in a chair is transformative,” Bunch said.

This museum will challenge your emotions, and tears will be shed here.

But there’s joy to be found too -- like Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac.

“Did you sit in the driver’s seat?” “CBS This Morning” co-host Norah O’Donnell asked Bunch.

“You are supposed to treat artifacts with respect, but of course I sat in it,” Bunch said. 

Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac      CBS News

About 40,000 artifacts have been collected. The fact that less than 10 percent of it is on display is emblematic of the pride and dedication that made this museum a reality.

“I am very humbled. I think in some ways my biggest worry was, could we find the stuff?” Bunch said.

After President George W. Bush signed legislation to create the museum in 2003, Congress designated $270 million -- half of what it would cost to build it.

Over $300 million more came through fundraising efforts. While corporate partners, business leaders and celebrities were the top donors, $4 million came from people giving whatever they could afford including the million dollars pledged by the congregation of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

“The church tried to emphasize that every gift mattered and wanted every member to believe that no matter how large or small your gift, you’re making history,” Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley said.
Visitors can add their history using an interactive display. 

“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King tries out the interactive display at the museum CBS News

But the newest Smithsonian museum is not a time capsule. It is a place where you’ll be encouraged to explore current events, including the complicated conversations of race that continue today.

For the inaugural exhibits, the Smithsonian Channel also collaborated with the museum to produce 130 videos, which contain 450 minutes of footage with approximately 8,000 images. They will be displayed on monitors and a massive 186-foot overhead screen.  

Check out the museum’s website for more information on how to visit. 

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