Get An Inside Look At The National Museum Of African American History & Culture
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) offered a sneak peek of its sprawling and captivating new experience to the press yesterday in Washington, D.C. We were on-hand to witness this defining moment in American history, which kicked off in the museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theatre where Smithsonian Museum Secretary, David J. Skorton and NMAAHC Founding Director, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, formally welcomed attendees before letting us explore the beautifully wondrous edifice. Those also wandering its hallowed halls were US Senator Cory Booker, Reverend Jesse Jackson, civil rights activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, Interactive One’s Jamilah Lemieux, The Atlantic‘s Vann R. Newkirk II amongst others.
During the welcome, Mr. Skorton stated, “We are grateful to President [Barack] Obama and to Congress for providing ongoing support. This landmark comes at a significant time in history for the Smithsonian and for our country. It will enable us to advance James Smithson’s democratic mandate to increase the infusion of knowledge in more eloquent and far-reaching ways than our founding benefactors could ever have imagined.” The museum has been under the public eye as it is soon to be open to the general public next week on September 24th. The dynamic and cherished institution is a bold challenge to not just traditional architecture, but to the systemic conditions within this country. From the rigors of slavery to the celebration of black-centric created music to the inventions and businesses fueled by black America — the NMAAHC is a central hub meant to “empower, evoke feelings, teach and energize [the] people,” according to Mr. Skorton.
The NMAAHC will officially open on the last available museum plot on the National Mall. The effort to get this project out into the world has been a longtime coming. To be succinct, over a 100 year struggle that began way back when in 1915. With over 40,000 historical pieces within NMAAHC’s walls, Dr. Lonnie Bunch was asked about his favorite artifact of those he brought to the museum’s collection, to which he responded, “You can’t ask me to pick one. It’s like asking me to pick one of my children. I think that whether I smile when I see Chuck Berry’s cherry apple red Cadillac or I cry when I see the whip that broke-in slaves or I go in and see a great, old movie poster…that [at the end] I am a happy guy.” He isn’t wrong. The NMAAHC is expansive with content overflowing in almost every direction. The museum consists of 12 galleries that collectively document the history of Africans and African American experiences and perspectives in this country. The 350,000 square feet building also has 10 total stories (five above and five below ground) that will give visitors a lot to do.
From galleries and exhibits chronicling the history of American slavery and freedom (the saddest journey) to the “Musical Crossroads” exhibit and “Making a Way Out of No Way” — the NMAAHC takes you through an array of experiences that collectively document American history through the lens of the Black Experience. Bold, exquisite, the NMAAHC museum is quite impressive. Royal and ornate, corona facades adore its interior highlights with strong accents of bronze. Freelon, Adjaye and the Bond/Smith Group were responsible for the museum’s interpretive design, which focuses on openness, strength and hope. “The material used was firstly to help the structure fit within the context of the National Mall,” architect David Adjaye said. “We wanted to make a building that was between those worlds of the Washington memorial grounds and the museum grounds. So, the building is a museum, it’s a monument and it is really something that is between many things. Bronze was chosen because it is the material of many artifacts, which is celebrated on the Monument Grounds, but also because bronze is a key material in West Africa. There’s something very beautiful about that.”
Touring the museum left me with the feeling of overwhelming pride, plus a rush of positive energy that has yet to leave my body and soul. As I started my journey in Sports Gallery, one of the items that I witnessed was a Georgetown [University] Starter jacket. “[The jacket] was one of the items that we put in our basketball case,” Damion Thomas, a Sports Gallery curator said. “During the 1980s and 1990s, Starter jackets were a major fashion item, but Georgetown had a particular appeal during that era. Wearing a Georgetown Starter jacket was also seen as a symbol of race pride.” Georgetown University, home to Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and, of course, NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, was one of the few places coached by a black man. “At the time, it was in ‘Chocolate City,'” Thomas said. “Coach [John] Thompson was not just a coach, [but] he was a father figure to his team and he was someone who had the best intent of African America at heart.”
From there, I visited the Culture Galleries. Each step served as a new revelation, presented in the guise of an old memory that was revived. This was the place where one could seek the truth. Here, the wealth of cultural knowledge on the Black Experience was not buried from sight, hidden from brain’s digestion or downplayed in favor of raising up another. Instead, our beauty, our brilliance, our bravery was spotlighted, celebrated, embraced and cemented in America’s historical glance. “This is a very large, open space, and we did this intentionally as we really want people to be able to experience the music. Not in silos. We want the fluidity to be very evident—that there are connections not just with individual relationships—but with sonic relationships between all of these different genres of music,” Timothy Anne Burnside, Museum Specialist in Curatorial Affairs, said. “We start looking at the roots of music in Africa, and how African American music has evolved looking at folk, blues, country and more,” Burnside continues.
Galavanting through the Musical Crossroads exhibit, I witnessed a wealth of material, which included Bootsy Collins‘ stage attire, the actual-factual P-Funk Mothership, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson‘s studio session notes, J Dilla‘s MPC and Moog keyboard, Chuck Berry‘s cherry apple red convertible Cadillac Eldorado and an En Vogue member’s red dress from the “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” music video. And that was just the tip of the iceberg! There was more including Bo Didley‘s iconic square guitar, congas from D.C.’s own Go-Go band, Experience Unlimited, better known as EU, stage gear from Chuck Brown and dedications to the women and crews of hip-hop (think Native Tongues and Soulquarians). Hell, you can even go digging through crates for vinyl in a simulated record store stand. I later asked Dr. Bunch for some background on the Musical Crossroads material, and he said, “Probably the most amazing thing is the Marian Anderson material. We’ve all seen that photo of Marian Anderson [on the Lincoln Memorial steps], but it’s always in black and white,” he said. “Suddenly, to get the gown that we received with the orange, makes you realize what a [true] diva she was.”
Elsewhere, interactive multimedia console displays enabled visitors to dive deeper into the historical details, backgrounds and other noteworthy factoids. Panoramic video montages and light boxes offered visitors other creative and diverse ways to absorb the wealth of history and materials on hand. Through it all, the NMAAHC held an immense educational value that would be appreciated. Most school textbooks have shied away from sharing this many historical accomplishments and successes from people of color. Thus, in saying that, venturing to the NMAAHC is worth more than one school field trip. This innovative, informative museum deserves repeated adventures to stoke a student’s psyche, pride and drive in a way those manufactured textbooks never could. As I continued my exploration of the NMAAHC, feelings of pride, astonishment, bewilderment and happiness. The experience enlightened, educated and uplifted me. I felt like the story, the struggle and our continued triumph as a people has been documented, confirmed and stamped official by the Smithsonian organization.
As a whole, the National Museum of African American History and Culture indeed has a story to tell. This tale spans the spectrum of hopelessness to revival to resilience to transcendence. It is an adventure that continues to evolve just as our nation does, which makes the NMAAHC a must-see journey for all ages, colors and creeds. With so many materials available for visitors to absorb and reflect on, the NMAAHC is definitely a place you must stop through to get the full story!