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A Review of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

A Review of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

This week I crossed off another item from my bucket list – the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum opened in September 2016, making it the newest museum on the National Mall.

The museum tells the story of American independence and growth through the eyes of the African Americans who helped build it. Like the Holocaust museum, it is deeply emotional and stirring, but also does a great job highlighting the culture and growth of this important American community. I spent three hours in the museum and barely scratched the surface.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to go, here are my tips and suggestions:

 

Tickets

The museum is still operating on a ticket basis, much like the Holocaust Museum. Tickets are free, but you cannot enter without a ticket. There are three ways to get tickets:

Reserve in advance. These tend to sell out pretty quickly. If you’re looking to get reserved tickets, keep in mind that the next batch is for reservations in June 2017. Tickets for this batch will be available starting March 1st, 2017 at 9:00 AM EST. For additional information on advanced tickets, check this website.

Same-day online. You can get up to 4 same-day passes online beginning at 6:30 AM until they run out. These go fast. I got online at 7:30 AM and all tickets for the day were already gone. 

Walk-up passes. Same day walk-up passes are available beginning at 1:00 PM daily, but these are only available on weekdays, not on Saturdays or Sundays. As with same-day passes, they are only available until they run out. I got to the museum just after 1pm and had no problem getting a ticket (but keep in mind it’s February and not high tourist season). If you choose to go this route, there is a line that forms off to the southeast corner of the building on Madison Drive, right next to the courtyard with tables and a sign explaining how to get tickets. Just look for the museum employees standing nearby. The line had maybe 3 people in it when I showed up, but the size will probably depend on the day. One other thing to know with walk-up passes – they only give out one per person, so make sure your whole group is together when you get in line.

 

Museum Layout

When you enter the museum, walk past the gift shop to the information desk up on your left. The docents will explain the best way to view the museum. To prepare you in advance, however, I’ll give you a brief rundown of how it works.

The main gallery is actually downstairs. This is where you start. You take an escalator down and then head through the doorway marked “History Galleries”. There may be a bit of a line here, because you have to take an elevator down three more floors to get to the beginning. While you descend in the elevator, the glass windows show the years counting backwards on the wall until you reach 1400 at the bottom.

The first floor of the gallery is dedicated to slavery and freedom and covers the period from 1400 – 1877. I really enjoyed this part of the museum because it helps explain how slavery became a trade, and traces the development of racism as a thing (something that apparently did not really exist in the early days of Afro-European interaction, and even in the early days of the slave trade itself). Look for the sobering wall detailing the number of slaves on each cargo ship and how many survived. 

The first floor also discusses the deep controversy in America’s fight for independence, highlighting that it was freedom for some but not all, and touching briefly on the personal controversies of some of America’s most enlightened thinkers who also happened to be slave owners.

 A view of the first floor of the History Galleries

A view of the first floor of the History Galleries

Once you have finished the first floor you head up a ramp to the second floor, which covers the period from 1876-1968 and focuses on segregation and Civil Rights. They include information on the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the racial tensions that grew throughout the first half of the 20th century. They also include the rise of music and business within the African American community, including a book written by Booker T. Washington about African Americans in business. Spend some time looking at the role churches played in the education and development of the community as you make your way to the back of the floor where there is a sanctuary of sorts for Emmett Till (no photography is allowed in this section at the request of the family). 

You’ll notice that each floor has a different style to it, representing the changing culture and issues of the time. It’s subtle and cohesive, but a very tasteful aesthetic highlighting the growth of the African American community throughout time.

The third floor covers the period from 1968 – modern times. It includes the rise of the Black Panther movement, women’s rights, the growth of pop culture icons like Oprah Winfrey, and culminates in the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president.

Like I said before, I spent 3 hours on just these three levels and could have stayed longer. I never even made it to the two floors above the lobby that showcase galleries highlighting culture and community.

 

Other Fun Facts About the Museum

(This information is summarized from the museum’s website here and an NPR interview with the architect here.)

I remember hearing some contention about the fact that the museum looks nothing like the rest of the Smithsonian buildings on the Mall. Turns out, that’s intentional. According to the architect, David Adjaye, he wanted it to stand out and to represent the coming forward of a community that has been essential to American development yet always in the shadows.

The building’s design also makes it the first Smithsonian museum to be LEED certified. The ironwork lattice represents both the ironwork used to enslave slaves, but also creates the feeling of being on a plantation where the sun shines through the trees. The inverted pyramid structure is reminiscent of traditional African columns connoting a special or sacred place.

Overall I would definitely recommend this museum as a place to stop. It tells the story of an important group in American history and is, on the whole, very well done.

 

Have you had a chance to go the National Museum of African American History and Culture? Share your thoughts and tips below!

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