Disclaimer: I have not been to the museum. This post is based on media hype in the Guardian, New Yorker and The Root that came out before the museum opened.
NMAAHC (2016-), the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, is the first national museum of Black history in the US. It opens today, Saturday September 24th 2016, a 101-year-old dream come true. It was opened by President Obama, the country’s first Black president.
It is not the Smithsonian’s first Black museum: it has an African art museum and the Black-oriented Anacostia Community Museum.
The building is brown while next door the Smithsonian’s (White) American history museum is white! NMAAHC looks like a modern art museum, not a Roman temple. The shape is based on the crown of an African queen, its angles matching those of the nearby Washington monument. David Adjaye, a British-Ghanaian architect, was the lead designer.
Lower floors: Because of height limits, half the building is underground. That is used to effect: when you take the elevator to the bottom, it counts the years backwards like a time machine: 2015 … 1776 … to the early 1400s. You soon find yourself in a slave ship! From there you work your way up through history to the ground floor, going through slavery, civil war, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the inauguration of President Obama, all the way to Black Lives Matter. Freedom is still a work in progress.
It is not a feel-good history: revolution is set next to counter-revolution, atrocity against protest. “It takes a nation of millions to hold us back.” You see the auction block – and shackles made for a child. You see a statue of Thomas Jefferson and his fine words, but behind him on the wall are the names of his slaves, one brick, one slave. Later you stand in a real slave cabin built in the 1840s: it feels like you are back in time. You see a Klan hood – and walk past the casket of Emmett Till.
Artefacts: NMAAHC has thousands of artefacts, everything from Nat Turner’s Bible to Michael Jackson’s fedora, from a Tuskegee airmen training plane to the P-Funk Mothership; from the dress Rosa Parks was sewing the day she got arrested, to the dress Michelle Obama wore the day she became First Lady.
Upper floors: After travelling through history, you can sit in the Contemplative Court (or maybe eat at the Sweet Home Cafe) before moving on to the upper floors to see Black achievements in art, music, sports, science and politics, from Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves to Ben Carson’s lab coat to J Dilla’s MPC. You can see art from people like Kara Walker, Joshua Johnson, Robert Duncanson and Mae Weems.
The view: After the art museum you get a wonderful view where you can see the White House and the memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
President Obama is glad the museum is opening this weekend in the wake of Charlotte and Tulsa: maybe it will help the country to understand what it is going through.
Tickets are free but you might have to reserve online in advance.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Washington, DC
- Charlotte and Tulsa
- Emmett Till
- Kara Walker
- Tuskegee airmen
- Nat Turner
- Black Lives Matter
- 16th Street Baptist Church bombing