Smithsonian opens virtual African American museum

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BOSTON, Sep 26 (Reuters) The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture launched on the Web today -- eight years before the museum's physical doors are scheduled to open.

The site relies on the same sorts of technology used by millions on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

Lonnie Bunch, the museum's first director, said he is taking that approach to make the museum part of people's lives now, even before an architect is selected to design the building.

It will be the 19th museum in the Smithsonian's collection and some people have expressed frustration that it has taken so long to build a national museum focused on exploring African American history and culture.

''The dream to build it really had started and stopped and stalled,'' Bunch said in a telephone interview. ''A lot of people really questioned 'Is this going to happen?' This is one of the ways we can make it real.'' He will use the site -- http://nmaahc.si.edu/ -- to promote museum exhibitions that will travel around the country over the next few years, solicit advice on planning the museum and seek donations to help raise money toward construction of the 500 million dollars building on the Washington mall.

The museum's first project to explore using the Web to add to its collection is a program called the Memory Book, which asks users to write in or submit digital audio recordings with recollections of significant experiences in their lives.

IBM, which designed and paid for the Web site, said it is the first time a major museum has opened up for business on the Web before opening its doors to the public.

REUTERS SG BD1112

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