Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History & Culture Turns Out To Be Washington DC’s Biggest Attaction



Nevermind long lines at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It’s already been a long time coming so what’s another 45 minutes?

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The museum was erected on the National Mall’s last buildable parcel.

In the shadow of the Washington Monument (on the last buildable National Mall parcel), the nascent museum is the hottest ticket in the nation’s capital. More than three million visitors have walked through its doors since former President Barack Obama inaugurated the building in 2016. Generations in the making, the museum’s become a popular cultural, historical, educational and architectural monument for the African American experience—and thus, the American experience.

President Barack Obama speaks at the museum dedication. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

The national African American museum idea dates back to 1929 when President Herbert Hoover appointed a building commission, which Congress ultimately failed to authorize. That is, until 2003, when decades-long persistence by Congressmen Mickey Leland and John Lewis (and construction authorization by former President George W. Bush) finally paid off.

Oprah Winfrey and actor Will Smith speak at the museum’s opening ceremony in 2016. Winfrey donated at least $13 million to the project. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Backed by philanthropic donations (at least $13 million from Oprah Winfrey alone) and rare bipartisan political will, the museum finally emerged from darkness—shining a brilliant spotlight on the overlooked African American saga in the United States. Branded as “A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story,” the museum is a profound monument with enlightened exhibits and programs. The challenging project cleared countless bureaucratic hurdles, requiring greenlights from a variety of entities—the Smithsonian Institution, government agencies, and National Park Service included.

Congressman John Lewis tirelessly pushed for the museum’s funding for decades. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

“The National Mall is the place where the world comes to understand what it means to be an American” says Lonnie G. Bunch III, museum director. “This museum fills [a] void…so many people are coming because the time is right to understand African American history and culture. This museum is a chance to make real, on the National Mall, a dream of many generations.”

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Sunlight passes through the façade, projecting filigree shadows.

The NMAAHC recently celebrated its first anniversary amid positive reviews, design and exhibit awards, and community celebrations. Across four centuries, the museum chronicles prominent citizens, events, accomplishments and contributions via a 40,000-artifact permanent collection (Bibles, documents, fashions) and insightful public programs that educate visitors about historic issues (Little Rock Nine panel discussion) and contemporary issues (Hip Hop, Black Lives Matter) from the African American narrative.

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The light and water-casting Oculus creates a contemplative mood below grade.

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and President Obama are well represented, of course. The museum documents everything from the international slave migration on its solemn lower levels, rising to freedom through trailblazing civil rights heroes (Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr.), to pioneering pop culture icons (Louis Armstrong, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Winfrey) on its exalted top floors. Don’t know Madame C.J. Walker or Moses Fleetwood Walker? You will after a visit here.

The sports wing, featuring life-size statues of tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The NMAAHC also commemorates the lesser known—the surname-less slaves, the faithful preachers, Underground Railroad conductors, inventors, orators, legislators, teachers, and protesters. The Smithsonian’s newest museum isn’t solely for African Americans, who undoubtedly experience pain and pride walking through the storied halls (the average visitor stay is six hours). It’s for everyone to explore.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African History and Culture. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

“So many objects would have been lost without this museum, so many stories would have been untold,” says Bunch. “The museum has become a pilgrimage site because it gives voice to the anonymous and makes visible the invisible.”

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The museum’s three-tiered corona projects at a 17-degree angle, aligning with the Washington Monument capstone.

What’s immediately visible is how distinct the three-tiered, bronze-plated museum is compared to other Smithsonian buildings. Designed by Adjaye Associates, The Freelon Group (now part of Perkins+Will), Davis Brody Bond, and SmithGroupJJR, the sustainable 400,000-square-foot museum delivers a strong conceptual salute to the National Mall landscape and to African American heritage—from slavery to the White House. The Design Museum of London nominated NMAAHC for its Beazley Designs of the Year Award, honoring architecture that makes a difference in the world.

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The NMAAHC is symmetrical with other Smithsonian museums, yet it stands out on the National Mall.

“I am most proud of what this building represents—the courage and strength to tell this difficult story in an authentic manner and by an institution, the Smithsonian, that brings such tremendous credibility,” says Zena Howard, managing director and principal of North Carolina-based Perkins+Will and senior project manager for NMAAHC.

Courtesy of Perkins+Will

Zena Howard, principal of Perkins+Will and senior project manager for NMAAHC.

The museum’s core design—an inverted pyramid shape, a three-tiered corona, a bronze lattice façade, and a porch element that offers transition between the structure and the landscape. An outdoor plaza surrounds an Oculus which, like a microscope, casts sunlight below grade to an interior contemplative waterfall court. Its Constitution Avenue entrance features a pond, garden and bridge that echoes the water crossing of slaves upon their America arrival.

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The bronze façade features 3,600 filigree panels inspired by ornate ironwork fabricated by enslaved craftspeople from Charleston and New Orleans.

“[The museum design] had to reference the fact that there has always been a dark presence in America that often got undervalued,” says Bunch. “…This museum honors the fact that so much of our history is hidden in plain sight.”

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Filigree patterns illuminate interiors and the past dark presence from America’s history.

The façade’s bronze filigree panels are inspired by ornate ironwork enslaved craftspeople fabricated in southern cities like Charleston and New Orleans. These metal lattice openings and skylights invite sunlight inside the museum during the day, and emit a picturesque glow at night on the National Mall. The building’s inverted pyramid shape takes its cue from Africa.

The bronze façade features 3,600 filigree panels inspired by ornate ironwork fabricated by enslaved craftspeople from Charleston and New Orleans.

The NMAAHC is symmetrical with other Smithsonian museums, yet it stands out on the National Mall.

“The [exterior] design is a melding of both African American and West African sensibilities,” says Howard. “The corona form was inspired by the [Yoruban] Caryatid, a traditional West African art and architectural form, while the filigree pattern is derived from ornate ironwork by African American craftsmen in the south. Additionally, the porch on the south side is reminiscent of the frequent manner in which southern African Americans used the covered space of a porch for activities that nurture and promote community and culture.”

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Former president Obama addresses the museum’s inaugural crowd from the covered “porch.”

The museum’s design is 60% below grade, requiring a continuous retaining wall around the perimeter to secure the building’s foundation on delicate pastoral marshland that was once problematic for the Washington Monument’s weight. The future LEED Gold-certified building’s site mimics the organic, curved pathways and landscape of the Washington Monument grounds (in fact, the corona angle matches the nearly 17-degree tilt of the Washington Monument capstone).

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

An exhibit showcasing artists

Inside the museum, sleek interiors include an Oculus, a monumental staircase, African-inspired art, digital technology, and filigree shadows projected onto walls by natural sunlight. According to Howard, the museum’s visitor experience parallels the African American historical journey from its complex past located in a deep descending gallery below grade to the ascending hopeful future above grade.

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The Community Gallery, highlighted by former community organizer and president Barack Obama.

“This voluminous space supports a linear, chronological experience while also displaying content in a manner that highlights particular themes that occurred contemporaneously throughout history—such as freedom and slavery or peace and war,” says Howard. “Above grade are the galleries representing community and culture which will continue to expand and evolve into the future. This content, enshrouded overhead in the corona, represents hope, persistence and the continuing evolution of African Americans and our nation.”

Video screens and an interactive table are part of the Making a Way Out of No Way exhibit. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Interactive digital exhibits allow guests to briefly experience life as an African American during the Jim Crow years—directly embedding them into transformative moments or placing them in the hard-plight shoes of historical figures. There’s the 8-minute Virtual Reality Rosa Parks experience which puts you in the civil rights heroine’s hot seat—through a VR headset where you become her sitting on the bus. How would you react?

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The award-winning lunch counter exhibit which puts visitors in the shoes of Jim Crow-era conflict.

There’s the Segregated Lunch Counter exhibit, where visitors can experience a 1960s activist “sit-in” via 42-inch touch screens embedded into a simulated Woolworth’s lunch counter before a 35-foot projection screen. The Society for Experiential Graphic Design bestowed this exhibit with a merit award.

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The museum’s interiors offer a linear, chronological experience relating to the African American saga.

Then there’s the Gold Muse Award-winning “Follow The Green Book” exhibit, an interactive 1949 Buick sedan with touchscreen dashboard that offers visitors a glimpse of Jim Crow-era travel challenges—representing Victor Hugo Green’s almanac which listed designated safe places (hotels, restaurants, gas stations) for African American motorists.

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The Oprah Winfrey Theater boasts the same filigree theme as the museum’s façade.

“It was important to use technology to humanize these stories” says Bunch. “Rather than be washed over by the Civil Rights Movement or slavery exhibits, you get to see it up close and personal. You get to understand that these are people [just] like you who experienced these issues. This was a way to not allow people to graze, but a way to force people to confront, engage and to recognize that they could have been in those situations. It allows people to have more empathy.”

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The NMAAHC includes sleek interiors and interactive digital displays.

It’s one thing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes—try walking 400 years. That’s bound to test anyone’s patience. The United States waited nearly 220 years for its first African American president, and nearly 90 years for its national African American museum. This, too, required patience.

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Exhibit on segregated military.

Yes, the National Museum of African American History and Culture attracts long lines, but it affirms (perhaps more than anywhere else) that patience is a virtue. Besides, it’s free admission and well worth the wait.

An exhibit on Barack Obama’s presidency. (Photo by Preston Keres/AFP/Getty Images)

“It is crucially important for this museum to be a part of any conversation to help people find a useful and useable past that becomes a tool to help them live their lives today,” says Bunch. “So the goal of the museum is still the same, to make America better.”

The fact that this museum was finally built proves America is better. Read More

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