Full disclosure: My initial expectations for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the Smithsonian’s newest museum located prominently next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., were firmly set at “just another museum.”
That was, until I stepped into the elevator and descended to the lower-level exhibits. We descended through a timeline ticking back milestone years as we inched ever lower. 1964. 1863. Eventually, 1400.
We were going all the way back. Back to before slavery was defined by race. Before different races were perceived by some to be more or less human. More or less intelligent. To provide context for the events that set in motion the history with which all Americans are familiar, with which we still grapple.
What this museum is able to do better than any history book is immerse visitors in the African American experience from the beginnings of colonization through to today, and to effectively show how events and mindsets and economic conditions compound and impact generations beyond those immediately affected.
As a white American of European descent, I have to admit that these topics didn’t exactly hit home with me emotionally when I learned about them in a classroom. Everything was “so long ago.” Except it wasn’t, and we’re still grappling with many of the same issues today that have been around for centuries.
I was deeply moved by the story of Ruby Bridges being harassed as she walked into school on the first day of integration. I had just walked over from a display about Plessy v. Ferguson (which legalized “separate but equal” spaces for whites and blacks); and before that, the emancipation of slaves and their struggles to establish themselves and be treated with dignity and respect in their communities; and before that, the institution of slavery itself. After centuries of punishment and oppression that was dealt to generations of African Americans beginning with slavery, and the slow progress being made toward being treated as equals in society, still, a little girl couldn’t even peacefully go to school with other children. Tears came to my eyes.
I imagined if that had been the experience of my six-year-old nieces on their first day of kindergarten just two months ago. People chanting, booing, protesting, throwing objects at them. Instead, we were fortunate to walk peacefully through an all-American, idyllic suburban neighborhood with other families, greeting the friendly crossing guards, marching happily toward the school’s front doors where the teachers and school officials welcomed us with smiles.
This wasn’t the first time I had been exposed to many of these stories. Ruby Bridges, Plessy v. Ferguson, emancipation, sit-ins – these are all familiar topics. But they had been words in a textbook. Essays on exams. Intellectually, I’ve understood the horrors of slavery and the damaging repercussions of denying rights to a group of people for any period of time. But here, the presentation of these topics – the complete immersion, the slow emergence through each era of history, with stories compounded on stories – had a profound effect on me.
I’ll be honest: I have to set aside my pride and admit that for the first time, I think I finally, truly get it. (As much as it is possible for someone of my background to “get it.”)
That is why this museum is so important. We all need to “get it.” We must understand in order to be better for the next generation.
The NMAAHC in Pictures
The museum’s architecture is striking inside and out. Scroll through the photos for descriptions of each area.
The exhibits were dense with information. Artifacts with related descriptions and context-setting content made the museum a slog to go through, but also made it so informative and powerful.
The layout of the exhibits were varied and visually pleasing. The history galleries, descending over three subterranean levels, have a huge open-air exhibition area that is overwhelming in its scale and almost makes you feel the weight of history and oppression and opportunity all at once. The use of space was an effective element that I wasn’t expecting, but made the experience more immersive and impactful.
Upstairs, the culture and community galleries were a maze of lights and displays and objects that were immensely interesting. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to spend much time in those exhibits, so they will be my first stop upon my eventual return!
Planning Your Visit
- Visit NMAAHC’s website to see the latest visitation requirements. Due to popularity, at the time of this posting, the museum is only offering limited same-day visit passes until March 2017.
- As part of the Smithsonian network, all visits are free of charge!
- The museum is split into two parts: three below-ground levels of chronological history galleries, and three above-ground levels of culture and community galleries.
- Plan for a full day, or parts of two days, at the museum. I spent three hours there and barely glanced at the upper three levels, which had just as much to offer as the lower-level chronological exhibitions.
- The Sweet Home Café in the museum is supposed to be awesome (I didn’t have time to go during my visit). Stop by and enjoy some museum food that is actually worthy of writing home about!
- Despite having entry restrictions and visiting in an off-peak season, the museum was still very crowded. Bring your patience and allow extra time to move through the exhibits.
- Building on the above point, the exhibits are dense with content. It’s worth taking it slow and reading as much as you can. But because of the amount of information, I’d recommend visiting over the course of two days versus trying to do it all in one day. I was brain fried by the time I finished the chronological exhibitions, which are only half of the museum.
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