Museum Matters: The National Museum of African American History and Culture
On Friday, March 3rd, I was lucky enough to get a same-day online ticket for the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (MHAAC) in Washington, DC. Established by an Act of Congress in 2003, the museum opened its doors in 2016, and has been drawing large crowds who are eager to tour the museum. Currently, the museum is “sold out” for individuals- advanced timed tickets are free, but necessary to enter the building- through June, so if one wants to visit, they must either come with a large group of 10 +, obtain one of the limited number of online same day passes that go on “sale” at 6:30am (!) or wait in line for the limited number of individual tickets handed out on site at 1pm on weekdays. So, while it is not impossible to visit the museum, it requires advanced planning.
NMAAHC is located on the north side of National Mall, towards the Washington Monument. On a smaller plot of land then other museums on the mall, NMAAHC is more vertically orientated. The museum exterior features lattice ironwork and is influenced by classical, Yoruba, and African American design. (See image below) The museum’s ground/street level floor serves as a welcome center, featuring an information desk, the gift shop and lockers for oversize bags. Upon walking in I noticed, that while the crowd was a slight majority African-American, there was still plenty of other groups represented. This floor also serves as a division between the museum’s aboveground and belowground galleries.
The museum’s history galleries are underground and to reach them you first to descend to the first concourse level, which features the Sweet Home Café and Contemplative Court which I will discuss later in the entry. (Interestingly, the history galleries are named for D.C. philanthropist David Rubenstein, who was a major donor, but is Caucasian. Other galleries bear the name of corporate donors, as do many galleries in museums, but I suppose there just seems something off to me, about having galleries dedicated to the struggles of African-Americans named for a white billionaire, no matter how upstanding he is.) You stand in a hallway lined with pictures of moment from African American history, before entering a large elevator that takes you down to the bottom of the museum where the actual exhibits start. As the elevator descends, the dates move backward from Present to 1400s, informing the audience that they are figuratively going back in time.
The first gallery is “Slavery and Freedom: 1400-1877.” The exhibits begin with a discussion African and European around 1400s before transitioning into the start of the slave trade and its relationship to the colonial experience. The full geographic extent of slavery is highlight as the gallery highlights the experiences of the enslaved in both north and south. Additionally, there is a wall that details the lengths of time that various participated in the slave trade. The focus shifts from the colonial to national experience in the section entitles “The Paradox of Liberty,” which charts the contrast between republican ideas and the practice of slavery. One of the most interesting sections of this exhibit is a display box labeled “Generations of Enslavement,” which features shackles hanging over a cradle. A simple, but profound arrangement. The last few rooms of the museum are dedicated to the Civil War and emancipation which help to transition to the next gallery. Before leaving this level, visitors can sit in a reflection room and record their thoughts on the exhibit. This feature is also included on the other two floors.
Climbing up the ramp to level C2, visitors encounter a video giving an overview of Reconstruction, which serves as a segway to the next floors topic, “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1876-1968.” This gallery features many larger objects, including a plane flown by one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated train car, and a guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola Prison. However, smaller objects do leave and impact as well. In a small room, off the side of the main gallery, Emmitt Till’s original casket stands as a reminder of how even the young were not safe from the violence of racism. One of the main gallery’s most interesting features, is an interactive lunch counter that poses questions to visitors concerning the experiences of civil rights activists, and asks how they would react in those situations. The galleries show the degradation and violence that were rampant for African Americans, but also their strength in combating these offenses. This sets the stage for the mainly post-Civil Rights Era galleries.
The final history gallery, on level C3, is “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” This gallery connects the waning years of the Civil Rights Era, with the movements and events that came after. While this gallery does highlight many gains of the communities, it also addresses ongoing problems such as in the “City and Suburbs” room, which notes how many African-Americans still live in urban areas, much of which are economically struggling. A small room and one of the last two video screens are dedicated to the election and presidency of Barack Obama, initially giving a sense of a triumphant ending. However, the last video screen includes images from Ferguson and Baltimore, showing that while there has been significant progress, the African American community still faces struggles because of slavery and segregation.
Returning to the main concourse, the visitor is centrally located for that level’s other main attractions. There is the Oprah Winfrey Theater, named for another major donor. There’s also the Contemplative Court, a room where visitors can sit on stone benches surrounding a central pool of water supplied by a “ceiling fountain.” The walls also each feature quotes. The main space on this floor, however, is the Sweet Home Café, which serves as the cafeteria, but also highlights the importance of African American through both its menu and wall art.
The remaining galleries are aboveground. I began from the top (4th) floor on my visit so the floors will be discussed in top down order. The top floor contains the culture galleries, which explore the manifold contributions of African-Americans to American Pop Culture. A particular focus is the African-American musical experience. On the third floor are the community galleries, which are like the history galleries, but I supposed different enough that they are in a separate space. Topics covered included the African American experience in various American cities and neighborhoods, activist efforts, participation in professional sports, and the military experience of African Americans. The second floor is the “Explore More!” floor, which includes a family history research center, and more interactive experiences for children and adults.
NMAAHC is a vertical expansive, and at times, emotionally/mentally heavy. Nonetheless, it is very engaging and informative museum. While I do believe that the museum will have the highest emotional resonance with African-Americans, all Americans can learn from the museum. I highly recommend it as must-see and must-learn about on anyone’s next visit to DC.