A guide to visiting the National Museum of African American History, Washington DC

The first thing you notice about the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which opened in Washington DC at the end of September, is the building itself: a striking box, clad in three coronas of bronze-painted aluminum grill. Designed by David Adjaye, the building seems simultaneously modern and ancient, referencing Yoruba tribal motifs. It looks defiantly different from the rest of the marble and limestone piles decorating the Mall, like a beautiful black swan in a regatta of white ones.

The second thing you notice is the lines. When I arrive just before 10am, they're already eye-wateringly long. Timed entry tickets are sold out for months, but a small amount are released each day on a first-come, first-served basis. A DC friend tells me she has seen people out there in the cold at 5am, hoping to be one of the lucky few to be admitted through the doors that day.

It is difficult to overstate how much hype – and hope – has been attached to this museum. The idea of a museum of African-American history was first floated in 1915. Serious legislative push began in the 1980s, and the US Congress finally authorised construction in 2003. Museum organisers then put out a national request for donations, because they didn't have a founding collection. Citizens donated their family heirlooms and prized possessions. It took years and the collective effort of thousands to put together the shadow story of America.

I say "shadow story" because the museum is, fundamentally, a retelling of familiar history from the perspective of people whose voices have often been silenced in more mainstream (white) narratives of how the past played out. It is not just a museum of "African -American history." It is a museum of American history, as seen through the eyes of the people who were exploited to build the dream.

"African-Americans have had an uneven history in this country," declares a plaque at the beginning of the galleries. "They came initially as forced labour to support the nation's economic development. But they brought with them spirit that had a powerful impact. Their struggles for human rights forced the nation to rethink the meaning of freedom and equality."

In other words, the truth will not be sugarcoated here.

The main thrust of the museum is laid out in three subterranean levels that cover a period beginning in 1400. You descend in an elevator to the bottom – slavery – and work your way up towards the light, passing through three distinct "eras" to reach the present day.

"Enslaved people were considered property and dehumanised," says one of the first information panels, not far from leg shackles and a horrifying model ship showing tiny figures laid virtually on top of one another. These first rooms are deeply confronting, full of facts that boggle the mind: 27,100 slaves in the north of America by 1775.

But even here the museum's radical purpose is quickly established, with considerable focus put on revolts and rebellions, and "freedom by any means necessary". The curators have chosen to emphasise the agency of slaves, showing how they actively worked to shape the future through participation in the Revolutionary War and then the Civil War. Traditional narratives have arguably preferred to portray slaves as impotent and powerless. But slaves fought back. Lincoln did not randomly "rescue" them with the Emancipation Proclamation; he was pushed to be a better man by Frederick Douglass. This is a subtle but important shift of emphasis for a national museum.

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The museum offers video and audio, statues and maps to tell its many stories. The assemblage is painstaking and smartly executed. Whenever it threatens to become too dense, for example, a stunning artifact appears to encourage a moment of pause and reflection: Nat Turner's Bible; Harriet Tubman's lace shawl, gifted by Queen Victoria.

A long ramp leads out of slavery and into the next era, "Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom", which started in 1876. This is the era of segregation, and in many ways it is just as brutal as slavery. Here are the Jim Crow laws, and the racist imagery that depicted African-Americans as "slow-witted, lazy and untrustworthy, but still loveable and childlike souls who simply needed the oversight of white people to ensure that they did no harm to themselves or others". Here are the lynchings, massacres, riots and signs advertising waiting rooms "for whites only".

Many of the civil rights leaders – Martin Luther King jnr, Malcolm X – seem almost godlike for their bravery in this oppressive atmosphere. After his famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr King soaked his feet in a metal bucket, displayed here behind glass like a holy relic. Another relic is an old diner stool from the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where four African-American college students sat down in 1960 and refused to budge until they received service.

The third floor, "A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond", examines, among other things, the rise of black influence in movies and music. Oprah gets her own installation, and there is a 10-minute loop of her "favourite moments" from the television show ("You're all going to Australia!"). Ordinarily I find Oprah manipulative, even egotistical; in this context, however, it is hard not to be astounded by her personal achievement. Just like Muhammad Ali and Denzel Washington, who are also highlighted, Oprah is both person and symbol, "the dream and the hope of the slave", in the words of Maya Angelou.

The main exhibition culminates with President Barack Obama's inauguration. Coming after everything below, it is a moving climax, as seemingly improbable now as it was back in 2008. But there is ambivalence in this final floor, too, which refuses to shy away from the ongoing racial discord in America. The African-American experience is not a tidy Hollywood narrative, even with his achievement of the White House. Oppression remains in myriad ways: police brutality, another burning church, the rise of alt-right extremist groups who espouse an ideology of white supremacy.

A long winding ramp leading up towards the surface suggests there is still a long way to go. Another sign at the top asks: "What does it mean to be black in America today? How does racial identification intersect with other forms of belonging? Does race still matter?"

This provocative, extraordinary institution offers no easy answers, but it modulates its challenges with so much beauty you would need several visits to take everything in, from a well-loved hymnal, flaking at the edges, to an immaculate sequined gown worn by Whitney Huston.

TRIP NOTES

More Information

washington.org

Visiting the museum

Admission to the museum is by Timed Pass only. These are sold in advance, many months ahead, and get snapped up within hours, or minutes.

A small handful of tickets are distributed each day for same-day entry, on a first-come, first-served basis, from 9,15am at the museum entrance. Arrive extremely early.

It is important to note that during the freezing winter months, these same-day entry tickets will be instead distributed online, starting at 6.30am. A small number will then be available at the museum entrance from 1pm on weekdays. See nmaahc.si.edu

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