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Murky and slow
The National Slavery Museum seems to be making little headway

Date published: 12/27/2006

Murky and slow

Does the National Slavery Museum have a viable plan?

AFIRST-RATE MUSEUM devoted to the story of American slavery would illuminate a related story now told to battlefield visitors each year at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and the Wilderness--places that would have escaped the bloody renown of history had human bondage never crept onto this continent. But will the proposed National Slavery Museum ever tell its part of the saga?

The struggle to open the museum, a long-held dream of L. Douglas Wilder, a former Virginia governor, has waxed for more than twice as long as the Civil War itself, but museum officials have little to show for their activities beyond a parcel, valued by them at $15.8 million, that was donated by the Silver Cos. in 2001 to site the facility. All other public donations tote up to $3.2 million. In fiscal 2005, reveal tax forms, the museum raised $938,186 in gifts and grants, while spending $603,897. If the institution's cost is reckoned at $200 million, a commonly cited sum, at this rate it should be going great guns in just a few centuries.

True, the museum's financial health could be more hale than its current assets suggest. Museum honchos say they have cash and pledges totaling about $50 million. But the latter by a wide margin predominate. And questions arise about the bankability of those pledges. Some have yet to be redeemed, museum officials say, because would-be donors shunted dollars to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Are the pledgers likely now to come through when the museum fails to raise even $1 million in hard cash in a single year? Are potential donors apt to whip out the checkbook when they learn that museum leaders today can't put a dollar figure on the gifts raised at a celebrity gala that took place in June?

A hard-headed observer--the only kind you want to size up a multimillion-dollar project hinging mostly on goodwill and trust--might well conclude that Mr. Wilder's museum is going nowhere fast. Some exhibits, after all, were to have premiered in 2003. The curtain hasn't gone up yet.

Do museum directors have a coherent strategy for raising the money needed to open and operate, in the near future, a top-quality facility for teaching about American slavery? Outside of their small and taciturn band, no one really knows. If they do have a plan, it's the first story they should be eager to tell.