Behind the Washington Monument lies a 400,000-square-foot, three-tiered crown — an architectural representation of hands lifted in prayer. Flanked by its Smithsonian Institute counterparts yet standing out in stark contrast aesthetically with its bronze exterior, the National Museum of African American History and Culture became the newest addition to the National Mall on Sept. 24, years after its initial conception.
The museum is a tribute to black Americans at a time when race remains a central topic in contemporary national discourse. Designed to promote this dialogue further, the museum helps visitors understand, connect and empathize with a wide collection of stories from African Americans of diverse backgrounds in the country’s history.
The stories range from those of faith to those of fear and anger. These emotions have translated into action, igniting the sparks that led to organized movements. The suffering endured by black Americans seems to reverberate within the museum’s multifarious walls. Mixed into these powerful waves are also elements of progress and advancement that manage to intercalate themselves into the suffering of African Americans, as validation that their efforts were not futile.
Thousands of people, spanning all generations and races, gathered to witness the museum’s grand opening celebration and ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 24. President Barack Obama joined a number of other prominent individuals, including Stevie Wonder and former President George W. Bush, to commemorate the museum’s opening.
The museum confronts one of the darkest chapters in American history and one that continues to exist at the forefront of the national conversation. The history and issues it embodies continue to impact the lives of all Americans.
Inscribed on its walls are words of great poets like Langston Hughes, from whom Obama borrowed the famous line, “I too, am America,” in his opening ceremony statement. The sports exhibit features the white terry cloth robe worn by Muhammad Ali himself. All these are in celebration of the countless accomplishments and contributions of black Americans, as well as their rich history.
“This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are,” Obama said. “It helps us better understand the lives of the president but also the slave; the industrialist but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher or the cook alongside the statesman.”
The building, according to lead designer David Adjaye, was inspired by a traditional Yoruban crown, while simultaneously evoking the act of prayer. The building has two components: the Corona, the museum’s distinctive crown-like bronze-colored structure, consisting of 3,600 aluminum panels, and the Porch, the museum’s main entrance.
The museum has been a work in progress for many years. Fifteen years ago, several congressmen brought the issue before Bush.
“It would be fair to say Congress and I didn’t always see eye to eye. … But this was one issue we strongly agreed on. I was honored to sign the bill authorizing the construction of this national treasure,” Bush said at the opening ceremony.
There are 12 inaugural exhibitions in the museum that focus on a variety of major themes, encompassing slavery, segregation, culture, music and arts. The theme follows a chronological pattern, beginning 70 feet below ground, symbolizing the somber beginnings of the history of black Americans.
In the history galleries, the story begins with the transition of slavery to the defense of freedom as the first few exhibits weave together the complex narrative of the slave trade, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. The narrative then shifts to move to the civil rights movement and the challenges brought with it.
Some particularly notable features of this section are the casket of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black teenager who was lynched for reportedly flirting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.
Finally, the last section, “From 1968 to Beyond,” explores the modern influences of black Americans in the economic, social, cultural and political spheres of the United States. Michael Dyson, a Georgetown professor of sociology was at the
“The NHAAHC is the most fertile symbol of the importance and indispensability of black memory to the nation, situated in the most holy civic space in America,” Dyson said.
The collections are designed to touch upon each of the major periods of black American history, including slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era and the Harlem Renaissance. The museum contains artifacts such as a Tuskegee Airmen Trainer Plane, c. 1942, a Jim Crow Railroad car, c. 1920, and even family photographs and clothing from Harriet Tubman herselff, c. 1897.
Boasting in total more than 36,000 artifacts, the museum’s collection is vast and varied. There are countless stories told, as if to emphasize that there is no single defining characteristic of black history in America. One of the museum’s most beautiful features is the assortment of lenses built into the building, designed to provide views of the White House and Washington Monument, in order to encourage visitors to consider “a view of America through the lens of the African American Experience,” according to a press release from the museum.
In the center of the museum lies the Contemplative Court, a space that beautifully strikes a perfect balance between water and sunlight, meant to serve as a space of meditation for visitors to process and reflect upon all they have seen and experienced during their visit. This space is similar to one in the incredibly successful United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which presents difficult subject matter in a way that has received widespread acclaim. If the NMAAHC follows this model, there will be no bound on its domestic and international impact.
One of the museum’s primary missions is education. Many initiatives are built into the museum, such as the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, which provides resources on how to conduct genealogical research. The Freedmen’s Bureau Records initiative is working to make the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a U.S. federal agency that aided freed slaves in the South during Reconstruction, accessible to the public. All these efforts by the museum are ultimately to create a searchable online genealogical database for black Americans to trace and appreciate their historical roots.
In addition to its historical value, the museum serves as a center for healing. With a physical structure planted firmly in the National Mall at the very center of our nation’s capital, the African American Museum of History and Culture is an important step toward the collective reconciliation and solution to issues including racial prejudice and injustice, past and present. The history on display in the museum is one we cannot choose to ignore; rather it needs to educate our future action to ensure issues of oppression may, someday, be a thing of the past.
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