Tour through the National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Smithsonian’s newest museum looks like nothing else on the Mall, and it brings an African influence to a place that could not be more American.
You approach it on walkways that largely trace paths worn in the grass by visitors to the Washington Monument.
The shape of its bronze-colored outer corona was inspired by a Nigerian artist’s carving, which is displayed in the “Cultural Expressions” gallery. The intricate filigree pattern resembles railings made by enslaved 19th-century craftsmen in New Orleans and Charleston, S.C.
Its three tiers — 3,600 panels of cast aluminum — are hung at the same angle as the Washington Monument’s capstone. (Be sure to take a photo with the two buildings lined up.)
The corona doesn’t cover the glass building’s first floor, so from inside, you can see the surrounding Mall from ground level, and seven openings in the upper floors offer well-framed views of the area.
The main entrance is a covered area off Madison Drive called the porch. During slavery, a home’s porch was the line of demarcation between the fields and the family. A pool of water leading to the porch churns, then becomes calm. It represents stillness and strength after a turbulent beginning.
If you come in from Constitution Avenue, you’ll walk by the Oculus, a glass circle in the concrete that houses a waterfall and allows natural light into a serene Contemplative Court on the floor below. Much of the north lawn is a giant green roof.
The building is divided into two parts: 60 percent underground, 40 percent above. The curators used this natural break as a way to cover more than 600 years in two very different ways.
Underground, a stark path winds chronologically and unflinchingly from slavery through civil rights and beyond. Aboveground, bold, busy galleries celebrate some of the cultural contributions African Americans have made to the country and the world.
“It’s as sobering as it is triumphant,” said Michelle Wilkinson, one of the museum’s 18 curators. “You don’t get to leave with only one feeling.”
The vibe in the lobby is more modern art exhibit than history museum. Look up to see a creation of bronze, copper and brass by Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt. The ceiling was designed with a matte finish to best show it off. On one wall is a five-panel work by District legend Sam Gilliam; across the room is a relief made of recycled tires by Newark-born artist Chakaia Booker.
But history comes first in the museum’s name for a reason, and the best way to experience the museum is to …
Start at the bottom
To get to the beginning, go down one floor to Concourse o and enter the David M. Rubenstein History Gallery. A glass elevator will take you down 70 feet – and centuries back in time.
Slavery and Freedom
You’ll step off the elevator into a dim, low-slung path that tells the story of the Middle Passage, when captive Africans were first brought to the New World.
A short detour leads to wreckage from a slave ship that broke apart off Cape Town, South Africa, in 1794, drowning 212 people. Among the recovered debris are 88-pound ballast bars, which compensated for the relatively light weight of human bodies compared with other types of cargo.
Quotations plucked from letters and documents of people who lived at the time make the slave trade come alive in a way that historians could not, curator Mary Elliot said. Two are juxtaposed on adjoining glass. First, an English merchant declares, “Negroes … are a perishable Commodity.” Next to it, a formerly enslaved author reminds “nominal Christians” of the Golden Rule.
From the Middle Passage you turn abruptly into an open concourse facing a 70-foot wall with words from the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.”
This wall is six feet thick to hold back underground water and leans away from the gallery at a 4-degree angle. If it were straight, it would appear to be tilting toward visitors.
Against the wall is a 19th-century slave cabin from Edisto Island, S.C., that was occupied until 1980. It was originally unfinished and unheated, and it had only one door so overseers could observe and control who came and went, curator Nancy Bercaw said.
Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation, 1876-1968
One piece that encapsulates the brutality and the resilience of people in the era is so sensitive that it was placed in its own quiet anteroom: the original casket of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white woman. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on a glass-topped casket and public funeral so the world could see her child’s disfigured face. The images outraged people of all races, and Emmett’s murder helped ignite the civil rights movement.
“His death made people think differently about how they wanted to function in the South and in the nation,” said curator Spencer Crew. “Rosa Parks was asked why she didn’t move to the back of the bus, and she said she thought about Emmett Till and couldn’t get up.”
Other exhibits are noteworthy because they appear so ordinary.
Nondescript lunch counter stools are from the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s where four black college students ignited a sit-in movement in 1960 that forced businesses to change their segregated policies. An interactive lunch counter offers a menu of civil rights stories.
A ride in the 44-seat first-class Southern Railway car cost the same for everyone, but the cramped “colored” section makes clear that the meaning of first-class varied by race.
The railcar and a 21-foot-tall concrete prison guard tower were brought in during construction, and the museum was built around them.
“One of the first things people did upon gaining freedom was open up a back door,” she said. When you wind back to the cabin after the Civil War and Emancipation exhibits, you see light through its precisely cut rear door.
The tower, from the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, illustrates the complicated threads that link slavery and incarceration. The notoriously violent prison was built on a slave plantation and leased convicts — the vast majority of whom were black — to the community as forced labor.
A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond
The start of this gallery is visually frenzied, with no clear pathway through. That suits curator Bill Pretzer, who wanted to convey the cacophony of the time.
One long case contains part of a graffiti mural from the 1968 Resurrection City encampment on the Mall that was built to advocate for the poor. “Pickets,” or photo groupings on poles, touch on stories such as the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the rise of the Nation of Islam and the Vietnam War.
Soldiers in particular were torn between duty to their country and desire for civil rights.
Pretzer’s favorite object reflects that dissonance in a small photograph sent from a young soldier to his mother. In it, he is holding an M16. On the back, he wrote: “This is … me and my girlfriend, Sweet 16. … We call them black power.”
Co-curator Michelle Wilkinson is particularly proud of a picket about the Black Arts Movement that wedded art, a black aesthetic and social commentary.
One of her favorite examples is a poster by social artist Faith Ringgold made of triangles that look like quilt swatches. But the jaunty poster took on the controversial cause of jailed activist Angela Davis.
On your way out of the history galleries, you finally get a hint of natural light. Suspended on your right is a biplane that was used to train Tuskegee Airmen, the African American military pilots who fought for their segregated country in World War II. On your left in enormous letters is a quotation from poet Langston Hughes: “I, too, am America.”
Now you are back on the concourse that has the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater, where the soundproofing material is hidden behind a screen designed in a similar filigree pattern to the building’s corona. A film made for the museum by “Selma” director Ava DuVernay will be shown here until the Orientation Theater opens in the fall.
Across from the Contemplative Court, where visitors can relax and reflect, is a small exhibit called “A Century in the Making” that describes how the museum came to be.
This is also where the food is. The Sweet Home Cafe has stations representing four regions: Creole Coast, Agricultural South, Northern States and Western Range.
The second floor, which is expected to open in Fall, will contain education space and the Center for African American Media Arts. Visitors will be able to research their families in a genealogy center that will have Freedmen’s Bureau records and a staff genealogist.
After the somber, wrenching history concourses, the third- and fourth-floor galleries have an energetic vibe and can be explored in any order.
This is where the fun begins.
SPORTS: LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
This gallery begins with a life-size depiction of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a “black power” salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
“Sports is a part of racial progress, but also an area where negatives about African Americans have been expressed as well,” curator Damion Thomas said.
Thomas initially feared he wouldn’t be able to build world-class exhibit while having to compete with the lucrative sports memorabilia market. That turned out not to be a problem, thanks largely to donations. Near Jesse Owens’s cleats from 1936 and Michael Jordan’s jersey from 1996 are Joe Louis’s gloves, Muhammad Ali’s robe, Gabby Douglas’s leotard and nine Olympic medals won by sprinter Carl Lewis. (The only one missing was placed on his father’s grave.)
On the outskirts of the gallery is a 25-seat version of the District’s Griffith Stadium, which stood from 1911 to 1965 and hosted the Washington Senators, Washington Redskins and the Homestead Grays, a Negro leagues team.
MAKING A WAY OUT OF NO WAY
This gallery is about how ordinary people made their communities better. “I wanted to tell multiple stories at once,” said curator Michéle Gates Moresi, “because change happens in so many different ways.”
Among the three-dimensional objects that anchored these stories are a pew from the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston, which was an anti-slavery meetinghouse founded in 1840; desks from the Hope School in South Carolina, which served African American children in the early 1900s; and a gold-lettered banner from the Oklahoma Women’s Federation chapter of the National Council of Negro Women that bears the motto “Lifting as We Climb.”
DOUBLE VICTORY: THE AFRICAN AMERICAN MILITARY EXPERIENCE
“It’s not about guns, it’s not about cannons, it’s about how the participation of African Americans in the military shaped this country for the better,” said curator Krewasky Salter about his gallery, which contains nuggets dating to the 1600s.
Salter considers his show-stopping piece to be the Medal of Honor given posthumously to Sgt. Cornelius Charlton, 21, who took over from his fallen platoon leader and, despite his own ultimately fatal injuries, led several charges up a hill during the Korean War.
“The intent was that the Medal of Honor would have the Hope Diamond effect,” said Salter, who has displayed the medal prominently in the center of a sunlit alcove, flanked by portraits of dozens of other Medal of Honor recipients. “This is the image you want to see.”
A narrow window directs the eye past the Washington Monument to Arlington National Cemetery, and a marker beside the window provides the gravesite locations of the 17 African American Medal of Honor recipients who are buried there, including Charlton.
POWER OF PLACE
Curator Paul Gardullo wanted to demonstrate the diversity of African American life with specific places at specific times.
Among them is Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard, a black vacation spot for generations; a farm in Lyles Station, Ind., where free black farmers have owned and worked the land continuously since 1815, and a Bronx neighborhood where DJ Tony Tone and the Cold Crush Brothers contributed to the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s.
An interactive storyboard will be crowd-sourced and is one of several places in the museum where people can share their own stories.
The best view from anywhere in the museum (other than from the closed-to-visitors fifth floor) is here, where a gap in the corona spans nearly the entire west side of the building and offers a sweeping view of the World War II Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. This should make for some spectacular sunset photos.
TAKING THE STAGE
Curator Kathleen Kendrick knew the collection needed to have something related to August Wilson, one of the most important African American playwrights of the 20th century and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. A signature piece is the piano from “The Piano Lesson,” a haunting play that addressed the legacy of slavery through a piano on which an enslaved man had carved images of his family history.
Movie and TV clips run continuously in one area, among memorabilia such as a rare lobby card from “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a 1967 film in which Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy took on the then-controversial subject of interracial marriage.
One of Kendrick’s most prized acquisitions is not on display yet. The uniform worn by actress Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura in the “Star Trek” TV series arrived too late to be included in the museum’s opening.
Between the “Holy Mothership,” a 1,200-pound spaceship stage prop from Parliament Funkadelic concerts, and the 1973 candy-apple-red Cadillac Eldorado driven by Chuck Berry during filming of a documentary, you’ll find an area that looks suspiciously like a dance floor, with music from all genres.
“I wanted to explain African American music in all its diversity, not just what people think it should be,” said curator Dwandalyn Reece.
That means that alongside Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Michael Jackson’s sequined jacket, you’ll see one of the Country Music Association awards won by country superstar Charley Pride, whom many early radio listeners were surprised to learn was black.
You’ll also see the jacket and skirt worn by classical vocalist Marian Anderson when she performed a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Constitution Hall. Reece wanted to ensure that the gallery recognized Anderson not only as a historical figure but also as a world-class artist.
You can’t miss this circular gallery with its overhead ring of continuously changing photos and videos. It takes a wide-ranging look at African and African American style, clothing, food, identity, politics, dance, art and language. You can find out about light topics such as Creole cuisine, 1970s hair products and the origin of the high-five, but also heavier topics such as the “paper-bag test,” a remnant of the 20th century in which lighter skin tone was preferred in many African American social groups.
In the center of the ring is curator Joanne Hyppolite’s must-have piece: the wooden post that inspired the museum’s design, carved by the great folk artist Olowe of Ise.
VISUAL ARTS AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Each area in the museum has its own vibe, but none contrasts so starkly with its jumbled neighbors as this one, which has the tranquil, uncluttered feel of an art gallery. Its emphasis is the role artists of African descent have played in shaping American art. Some are well-known members of the American canon, others should be but are not, and still others may one day redefine the limits of that canon, curator Jacquelyn Serwer said.
“We wanted everything,” she said. “Our curators are greedy!”
At the top of curator Tuliza Fleming’s wish list was a painting by noted Jazz Age artist Archibald John Motley Jr., but the budget was too tight. Then Robert L. Johnson of Black Entertainment Television donated “The Argument”.
Another piece took curators by surprise because it had supposedly disappeared. The niece of artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, a protégé of Auguste Rodin, donated the original painted-plaster sculpture “Ethiopia,” one of her signature works from about 1921.
Your tour is done, and you’ll probably be too tired to look up here anyway. The top floor contains staff offices and will not be open to the public.