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Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009

The National Museum of African American History and Culture has acquired the original casket of Emmett Till, whose brutal murder in 1955 energized the modern civil rights movement.

The official announcement of the donation — made by the Till family to the Smithsonian Institution — will be made Friday, the 54th anniversary of his death, during a memorial service in Chicago, museum officials confirmed.

What some might consider a horrific artifact would seem to be a necessary addition to the sweeping story of black triumphs and tragedies that the museum plans to tell when it opens on the Mall in 2015. But Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s director, said Wednesday he had much to consider before saying yes to the acquisition.

“The family wanted to preserve it in a respectful way,” Bunch said. “But it did raise philosophical, ethical and sensational issues that I wanted to think about. And I wanted to consider them as a museum director, as a historian, and someone who has to raise funds. I wanted to understand all the hurdles.”

Almost every museum wants an artifact that stops the visitor. The item can make you pray, shudder, cry, think. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has several, from a railroad car that transported Jews to concentration camps to piles of shoes worn by victims. In a tiny civil rights museum in Savannah, Ga., a partially burned cross is on display.

Bunch had no doubts about the casket’s significance. “The story of Emmett Till is one of the most important of the last half of the 20th century. And an important element was the casket,” he says. read more