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Thousands to celebrate opening of African-American Smithsonian museum

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WASHINGTON — Thousands will descend on the National Mall this weekend for a three-day festival event to celebrate the newest Smithsonian Museum — the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

The building chronicles the decades of fighting against slavery, the efforts to end segregation and the Civil Rights Movement as well as contributions made by African-Americans in areas ranging from the military to sports to culture and the arts.

President Barack Obama, speaking at the White House Friday, said he hopes people visit the museum and come to see current events in greater context.

“My hope is that as people are seeing what’s happening in Tulsa or Charlotte on television, and perhaps are less familiar with not only the history of the African-American experience but also how recent some of these challenges have been, upon visiting the museum may step back and say, ‘I understand. I sympathize. I empathize. I can see why folks might feel angry. And I want to be part of the solution, as opposed to resisting change,'” Obama said.

“My hope is that this complicated, difficult, sometimes harrowing but I believe ultimately triumphant story will help us talk to each other,” Obama added. “And more importantly, listen to each other. And even more important, see each other. And recognize the common humanity that makes America what it is.”

The highlight of the weekend will be the museum opening Saturday with thousands in attendance in a star-studded ceremony in the morning, including remarks from Obama. Also attending will be First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts and Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement.

Saturday’s event will also include musical performances by Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle and Denyce Graves as well as appearances by Robert De Niro and Angela Bassett, who will read the words of black poets and historians.

The effort to bring this museum to life began decades ago but was finally set in motion in 2003 when Bush signed a bill creating it. Ground was broken in February 2012.

The Smithsonian says the museum is the only one in the US exclusively focused on African-American life, history and culture, but organizers say it is also meant to capture the story of all Americans.

One of those who have worked for years to see this museum come to life is educator and historian Lonnie Bunch, founding director for the museum.

Asked what does it mean to him to see it finally open, he said, “It means that finally the African-American story on the National Mall is accessible to everybody, and in many ways it means that my ancestors are smiling,” he told CNN. “This is framed in a way that this is everybody’s story. It is not a black people’s story. It is a story of America.”

Slavery and freedom at focus

Officials said the chronicling of slavery and freedom are the centerpiece of the museum. That exhibit contains such items as a slave cabin from South Carolina, a bill of sale for a 16-year-old girl for $600, shackles used on slaves and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

There is also an exhibition focusing on the fight against segregation, which discusses the era from end of Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Movement. Here, visitors see such things as abolitionist Harriet Tubman's hymn book to a dress Rosa Parks was making shortly before she was arrested for not giving up her seat on a segregated bus; a Tuskegee airplane used to train African-American pilots for World War II flights; a segregated Pullman train car as well as a stool from the Woolworth store where there were sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960; and separate water fountains.

A separate section examines the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s and other activism remembering many activists, including Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King.

The museum holds more than 3,000 artifacts -- with many contributed from ordinary Americans from across the country. There are also tens of thousands of other artifacts which have been contributed which could be rotated later into exhibition space.

There are also many iconic items celebrating the achievements in sports, music, television and film including Michael Jackson's fedora hat worn during his 1984 "Victory Tour," boxer Muhammad Ali's headgear, musician Chuck Berry's Cadillac, baseball star Jackie Robinson's bat, some of Olympian Gabby Douglas' items as well as a statue honoring American athletes who held their hands up as a demonstration of solidarity during the 1968 Gold Medal ceremony.

Obama featured

One exhibit honors the legacy of Obama's election. During an interview airing Friday, he voiced his appreciation for all of those whose work helped make the museum happen.

"We were an outgrowth of Frederick Douglass and white abolitionists who partnered with him," Obama told ABC News. "We were the consequence of these Freedom Riders. Of all races. Young people idealistically coming down here and being willing to challenge an unjust system."

Also interesting is the design of the building. Sitting next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall, the exterior is made up of 3,600 bronze-colored panels. The architects of the building drew on imagery from both African and American history for the outer layer, saying they were trying to reach towards the sky to express faith, hope and resiliency. The building is three-tiered and is inspired by a traditional wooden column that features a crown or corona -- or African headdress -- at the top.

At night, the corona glows from the light within the building.