The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Sept. 24 with a ribbon cutting by President Barack Obama. Whether seated with VIPs beside the dazzling structure or gathered on the grounds of the Washington Monument, thousands will celebrate the realization of a long-held vision. As the institution’s newest addition, the museum is naturally a must-see. But there are even more reasons to visit this important collection.
1. The Current State of the Union
“It will be a place for healing and reconciliation,” said Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, “a place where everyone can explore the story of America through the lens of the African-American experience.”
2. The Location
Set on five acres at the southwest corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street, the museum assumes a prime place in the monumental core. Steps from the Washington Monument, the new structure adds fresh perspective to the mission of its neighbor, the National Museum of American History.
3. The Design
Freelon Adjaye Bond / Smithgroup won the 2009 design competition from a short list that included architects Moshe Safdie and Norman Foster. The design team called for a glass showcase wrapped in 3,600 panels of intricately patterned aluminum. The bronze-toned metalwork dubbed “the corona” allows for dappled light to enter and for a glow to emanate by night. Its form evokes the top of a Yoruban column as well as ironwork crafted in this country by “invisible” slaves and freedmen. Eventually, in the midst of the city’s classical white marble, the metal will darken to a deep, rich brown, a contrast Adjaye calls “traumatic and beautiful.”
4. The Landscape
Gustafson Guthrie Nichol has created a series of spaces with sweeping paths, trees native to the South, a fountain and a calm reflecting pool at the south entry. Water elements, moving and still, make for inviting thresholds even as they evoke the sea journeys of the first African-Americans.
5. The Content
With four levels below grade and five above, visitors take ramps and a helix staircase through time. Exhibits range from days of slavery (relics from a slave ship wrecked off the coast of South Africa, shackles that might fit a child, a cabin from a South Carolina plantation, Nat Turner’s Bible) through the Civil Rights era to 21st-century events like President Obama’s second inauguration. Large-scale artifacts punctuate the journey—a 44-seat segregated passenger rail car from the 1920s, a 20-foot guard tower from a 1930s Louisiana penitentiary and a 1944 open-cockpit biplane used for training Tuskegee pilots. Intimate objects recall triumphant moments, among them Marian Anderson’s orange silk jacket and black velvet skirt worn when she sang on the Lincoln Memorial steps in 1939, a dress made by Rosa Parks before her arrest on a segregated bus and a leotard worn by Olympic gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas.
6. The Technology
The $540 million project (funding split between the federal government and the Smithsonian) has earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Displays include immersive sound, a step-dancing lesson that generates LED avatars and more than 300 videos of vintage and fresh footage. Interactive experiences recreate a 1949 car trip per the Green Book guide of black-friendly stops and a 1960s sit-in training session at a 12-stool Woolworth’s counter.
7. The Art
A growing collection spans from 18th-century portraiture by Joshua Johnson to 21st-century narratives by Rashid Johnson and Kara Walker. According to chief curator Jacquelyn Serwer, commissions of major abstract works signal the centrality of black artists in contemporary art history.
8. The Show Business
Achievements and memorabilia of African-American musicians and performers receive star treatment here: a unique brass-and-gold trumpet crafted in Paris for Louis Armstrong, the 1973 cherry red Cadillac from Chuck Berry’s personal fleet and even a fedora worn by Michael Jackson.
9. The Personnel
The staff may be the most racially diverse of any within the Smithsonian. That inclusiveness marks the 300 volunteers chosen from 1,000 applicants. After role-playing exercises and processing their own emotions, guides are prepared to respond to visitors’ reactions. Personal encounters also happen with staffers, like the library’s on-site genealogist who offers to trace family connections.
10. The Impact
A Contemplative Court with an oculus and falling water encourages visitors to reflect on what they have seen and felt in the exhibitions. Perhaps a visit here will, in Bunch’s words, “help the public embrace ambiguity” and accept that complex questions have no simple answers. But unlike other “sites of conscience,“ this museum lifts the spirit even as it commemorates. It makes the case that history, though marked by heart-wrenching events, consists of hopeful, joyous moments, too.
Plan Your Visit
Though the museum is free, timed entry tickets are required indefinitely. Reserve tickets ahead online at the museum website. Some same-day tickets will also be available at Visitor Services beginning at 9:15 am.
With demand high, public transportation may be your best bet to get to the museum. Metrorail’s Smithsonian station takes you directly to the Mall, while the Federal Triangle and Archives-Navy Memorial stops drop you one block north. L’Enfant Plaza takes riders a block south. The D.C. Circulator bus loops around the Mall, with buses arriving every 10 minutes at several stops throughout. The cost is $1 to ride, but those boarding with a SmarTrip card can reboard for free within two hours. SmarTrip cards are available at Metrorail stations throughout the system.