By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new National Museum of African American History and Culture may help heal the persistent problem of U.S. racism when it opens in 10 days, the head of the Smithsonian Institution said on Wednesday.
The $540 million museum will be inaugurated by President Barack Obama as racial and cultural differences dominate the national scene, and is an ideal place for a dialogue about them, Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton said.
The bronze-colored museum's showcase sits on Washington's National Mall, known as "America's Front Yard." It is the only U.S. national museum devoted exclusively to black American life, history, and culture, the Smithsonian says.
"Opening now, at a time when social and political discord remind us that racism is not, unfortunately, a thing of the past, this museum can, and I believe will, help us advance the public conversation," Skorton told a news briefing on the launch of the museum, the 19th in the Smithsonian system.
Although workers were still putting finishing touches on the museum, Director Lonnie Bunch said it would be ready in time for the Sept. 24 opening.
"It's a piece of cake," he said. A Smithsonian spokesman said 200,000 timed passes had been snapped up, with no openings available until November.
The 36,000 items in the collection range from trade goods used to buy slaves in Africa to a segregated railway car from the 1920s and a red Cadillac convertible belonging to rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry.
Other displays include a slave cabin from South Carolina, a robe used by boxing great Muhammmad Ali and the coffin of Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder in Mississippi helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
The building designed by Ghanaian-born architect David Adjaye is 60 percent underground. Half of the cost of construction and installing exhibitions came from the federal government and half from the Smithsonian.
The museum's outer layer consists of 3,600 bronze-colored aluminum panels formed in the shape of a three-tiered crown. The pattern of the exterior panels is designed to evoke ornate ironwork created by enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans.
Black Civil War veterans first proposed an African-American museum in 1915. Congress approved its creation in 2003, and construction of the 400,000-square-foot (37,200-square-meter) building took almost four years.
Three days of opening festivities will include concerts with such artists as Public Enemy, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Living Colour and Sweet Honey in the Rock.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)