WASHINGTON Political and cultural figures joined to break ground for a new museum celebrating black Americans on Wednesday, with President Barack Obama calling it a symbol of Americans' shared history.
The $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture will be the only national museum devoted solely to black life, art, history and culture.
The site is scheduled to open in 2015 on the National Mall, the two-mile-long stretch of parkland between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.
Obama, the first black president, said the museum should be seen not as a memorial to black Americans' often-tragic history but as a reminder "that each of us is made in God's image."
"It should stand as a reminder that the best things in life rarely come quickly or easily," he told the groundbreaking ceremony.
Obama was joined by a dignitaries including former first lady Laura Bush and Democratic Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a veteran of 1960s civil rights campaigns who spearheaded creation of the museum.
Hosted by actress Phylicia Rashad, the ceremony included performances by jazz pianist Jason Moran, opera singers Denyce Graves and Thomas Hampson, and the Heritage Signature Chorale.
The seven-level museum will be between the Washington Monument and the National Museum of American History. It is the culmination of efforts begun by black Civil War soldiers to get a monument.
The museum, the 19th in the Smithsonian system, will have most of its 374,000 square feet underground, and it is expected to draw 3 million to 3.5 million visitors a year.
Exhibits will include a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car, slave shackles, galleries devoted to military and sports history, and a trumpet owned by jazz great Louis Armstrong.
The Mall's next building project is expected to be the Frank Gehry-designed memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower. Design approval for the four-acre memorial near the Capitol is scheduled for next month.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson)