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'Enthusiasm has been overwhelming': African-American history museum prepares for huge crowds

The museum has collected more than 40,000 artifacts and other items.

<p>Guests can sit underneath images of men and women conducting lunch counter sit-ins to protest segregation in the Sweet Home Cafe at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</p>

WASHINGTON – Of the thousands of artifacts that will be displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, none give Mary Elliott the chills like the shackles that were used on children transported on slave ships from Africa, or the whip used to keep slaves in line.

“The thought of someone gearing up to whip someone with that – that will never leave my mind,’’ said Elliott, a curator at the new Smithsonian museum.

The museum has collected more than 40,000 artifacts and other items. More than 3,000 will be on display when the museum opens to the public on Sept. 24. Elliott and other museum staffers shared the history of the museum's collections and exhibits during a media preview Wednesday.

“This is a shared history. This is an important history,’’ said Elliott, who co-curated the "Slavery and Freedom" exhibition. “It’s an American story, but it’s told through the African-American lens. But even with that, it’s a human story.’’

The museum showcases the African-American experience from slavery to the present. Its public debut will include an address by President Obama and appearances by first lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. The Obama family toured the museum late Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the grand opening and other events. The museum also is hosting a three-day festival, “Freedom Sounds: A Community of Celebration,’’ on the National Mall featuring music and dance and spoken word performances.

“We want to create a celebration so even if the museum isn’t open and you’re not in, you can really enjoy the strength of this culture,’’ said Lonnie Bunch, the museum's director.

Visitors to the 400,000-square-foot museum will be presented with 11 inaugural exhibits and artifacts, from abolitionist Harriett Tubman's hymnal to the head gear used by of the late boxer Muhammad Ali. They will be able to walk through a restored 40-ton segregated rail car and even share their own stories. They can look up at a Tuskegee airplane and a tower from Louisiana's Angola prison.

Museum officials and workers were scrambling this week to put finishing touches on exhibits, including one that will feature the original casket of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old murdered in Money, Miss. in 1955 after reportedly whistling at a white woman. Another worker installed lighting Wednesday in an exhibit encasing Tubman’s shawl.

“There are a few last-minute objects that were so delicate you wanted to put it in at the last minute,’’ Bunch said. “But basically the biggest challenge is really just preparing for the crowds. The enthusiasm has been overwhelming."

The museum holds a special place in 77-year-old Gwen Mitchell's heart.

The jersey worn by her husband, Bobby Mitchell, the first black player for the Washington Redskins, is on display on the third floor. Mitchell remembers moving to Washington in 1962, when the city was still very segregated.

“I really don’t think many of us realize what it was like,’’ Mitchell said. “(The museum) is showing us what it was like. You think you had it rough. But this is history and it shows you how rough things were.’’

Museum officials said they had to start from scratch to collect items for museum, which Congress approved in 2003.

The exhibits pay homage to the civil rights movement and African-American music and sports. One of the most jarring focuses on the Middle Passage -- the journey taken by slave ships from West Africa to the West Indies -- and slavery in the United States. That section includes a slave cabin from South Carolina.

Nancy Bercaw, a curator in the "Slavery and Freedom’’ section, said the museum aims to “tell the unvarnished truth.’’

“This is really documenting a past, our shared past,’’ she said. “It’s really the nation’s commitment to collecting, displaying and fully addressing this past. So I hope …that people will continue to bring objects forward. Because it’s very important for us that we never, ever lose sight of this history again."

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson said one of the museum's most important contributions should be a push for a National Day of Remembrance for Slavery.

“Slavery should be declared a crime against humanity,’’ said Jackson, who toured the museum Wednesday.

“This reshuffles the deck of American history,’’ he said of the museum. “This is unfinished work here. This is the very beginning of something great. The history continues unfolding.’’

Contact Deborah Barfield Berry at dberry@gannett.com. Twitter: @dberrygannett