Articles

A New National Museum Conveys the Pain and Power of the African American Experience

WASHINGTON, DC — After 100 years of lobbying, 10 years of planning, and almost 5 years of construction, the newest member of the Smithsonian family is finally here.

The main entrance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC with the Washington Monument in the distance (all photos by Erika Rydberg for Hyperallergic)
The main entrance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC with the Washington Monument in the distance (all photos by Erika Rydberg for Hyperallergic)

WASHINGTON, DC — After 100 years of lobbying, 10 years of planning, and almost 5 years of construction, the newest member of the Smithsonian family is finally here. Last weekend, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened to great fanfare, with a weekend-long festival on the National Mall (featuring performances by Living Colour, Public Enemy, and The Roots), heartfelt dedications by President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush — who, in 2003, signed the bill creating the museum — and crowds of thousands of people.

The instant popularity of the museum cannot be overstated. All 28,500 free timed museum tickets for NMAAHC’s opening weekend sold out within an hour of going up online, and tickets remain fully booked until the end of December. NMAAHC’s popularity is largely due to the significance of a museum on the National Mall specifically dedicated to the African American experience — especially in DC, “Chocolate City,” where only in the past five years has the Black population dipped below 50%. But equally exciting is how well NMAAHC works as a museum, aesthetically, functionally, and — probably most important — emotionally.

The building itself is a collaboration of four design firms that were led by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. NMAAHC looks like an upside down ziggurat with a brown lace texture. The building’s shape was inspired by the three-tiered crown atop a Yoruban Caryatid, with the crown panels reminiscent of the wrought iron designs created by enslaved craftsmen in 19th-century New Orleans.

The lobby of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC
The lobby of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

“A 21st-century museum with the responsibility of history must look forward and back at the same time,” Adjaye explained in a public conversation with Theaster Gates at the Hirshhorn Museum the week before NMAAHC’s grand opening. “It’s architecture as narrative. A lot of the labor of African Americans was for others, not for themselves. There’s something profoundly silent … it’s the sadness of the thing.” An audience member commented that it sometimes takes an African to bring African Americans back to their roots.

On entering the NMAAHC, visitors pass into an expansive lobby, with information desks and the museum store tucked into the corners. Escalators take you either down to the history galleries — in keeping with the tradition started by the Freer/Sackler and African Art museums, 60% of NMAAHC is underground — or up to the culture and community galleries. (The museum recommends visitors go through the historical sections first.)

A display in the historical galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC
A display in the historical galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

Downstairs, the historical galleries were well worth the hour-long wait on opening weekend Sunday. After slowly winding around the foyer and down the stairs, visitors get a rudimentary introduction to the concept of slavery and its effects on the eventual social construct of race, before entering a small, chilly room made to represent the human cargo hold of a slave ship. Inside, voices tell the stories of enslaved individual, while visitors view horrifying statistics (for instance, that often only half of the people onboard slave ships would survive the transatlantic journey) and examples of the shackles used to keep the future slaves from moving — including a tiny set used for toddlers. The space was so affecting that people previously chattering in line immediately fell silent the moment they walked in — impatient children included.

Harriet Tubman’s scarf and hymnal at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC
Harriet Tubman’s scarf and hymnal at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC (click to enlarge)

What follows is a whirlwind of three floors of history, tracing the African American trajectory all the way through the election of President Obama. Among the thousands of objects and stories on display, some of the most impressive are the giant ones: a South Carolina slave cabin; a log cabin built and inhabited by free slaves in Maryland; a Segregation-era Southern Railway car; a prison guard tower from 1930s Louisiana; a Tuskegee Airplane from World War II. (Several of these bulky artifacts were lowered into the building’s basement before the aboveground structure was built around them.) However, it’s often the smaller objects — like the tiny shackles — that are most memorable and moving. A branding iron (a gift to the museum from Oprah Winfrey), an enormous sack used for picking cotton, Harriet Tubman’s scarf and hymnal, Nat Turner’s bible, Rosa Parks’s dress, and shards from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 are but a few. A wealth of incredibly well preserved documents also peppers the exhibition spaces, everything from official freedom papers to personal correspondences. The museum never shies away from or tries to sugarcoat history. For example, the post-Civil War section is titled “The Paradox of Liberty” and includes a statue of Thomas Jefferson with a giant stack of bricks behind him, each with a name of one of his hundreds of personal slaves carved into it.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of a wall of bricks engraved with the names of enslaved people he owned.
A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of a wall of bricks engraved with the names of enslaved people he owned at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

On exiting the historical galleries, visitors are invited to sit in a contemplative space with a circular waterfall streaming down from the ceiling, natural light peeking through from above. The Contemplative Court gives visitors an opportunity to collect their thoughts on everything they’ve seen and experienced before moving on to the more upbeat galleries above.

While the three floors of underground galleries delve deep into the suffering and struggle of African Americans throughout history, the aboveground floors offer a celebration of all they have contributed to American culture. Beyond the second floor, devoted to educational programming, the third floor is dedicated to the stories of black athletes, African Americans in the military, and the importance of education, business, religion, and activism in black communities throughout the US. The fourth floor focuses on culture, which is divided into “cultural expressions” — hair, clothing, food, dance, and language — the visual arts, theater and film, and, of course, music.

Chuck Berry red Cadillac El Dorado at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC
Chuck Berry red Cadillac El Dorado at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

The music section is the biggest of the cultural galleries, and for good reason. From jazz and gospel to rock and rap, African Americans have arguably defined the very essence of American music. The first thing visitors see when going into the “Musical Crossroads” gallery is Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac, which the singer donated to the museum. Other notable objects include the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership, a giant Sam Cooke banner, and the sign from the Harlem jazz club Minton’s Playhouse. Amid these, enshrined in glass cases, are all the dazzling outfits and instruments — dresses, sequined bodysuits, banjos, guitars, and pianos once owned by the likes of En Vogue, Lead Belly, Prince, and Thomas Dorsey, the “father of gospel.” Nearby, a music room invites visitors to rifle through records and play clips from iconic songs.

Beyond its dramatic architecture, the evocative objects in its collection, and the engaging setup of its exhibits, what’s most powerful about the NMAAHC are the stories it tells — so many stories. I was particularly struck by the story of Resurrection City, an oft-forgotten 1968 live-in demonstration on the National Mall organized in the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The city, which had some 3,000 residents and its own zip code, brought together people of all races, seeking economic justice for the poor. The museum will never be done collecting such stories; the NMAAHC has several video booths in the underground galleries (all of which were occupied on Sunday night, with small groups of people waiting to get in), where visitors are invited to record their own personal and family histories. And, once the hubbub of the grand opening calms down, the museum will resume accepting individual object donations. After all, it takes an amalgamation of many personal stories in order to tell the larger history of a people.

The exterior of a Segregation-era Southern Railway train car at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC
The exterior of a Segregation-era Southern Railway train car at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is located at 1400 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Time entry passes are sold out for the rest of 2016; passes for the first three months of 2017 go on sale October 5 at 9am.

comments (0)