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ARTS AND CULTURE

4 MIN

Must See: Washington's Stunning Museum of African-American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture beautifully presents an often ugly history

Most of the shrines and monuments on the National Mall in Washington are ash-white. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, also known as NMAAHC, stands out in a shining bronze.

The museum opened in September 2016 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama – the first African-American president, who stepped down in early 2017 after two terms in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, the conversation about race in America has come to one of its periodic crescendoes: the Black Lives Matter movement is demanding discussion on police violence, while the black-white pay gap and representations of African Americans in popular culture continue to simmer (think: Chris Rock's monologue at the 2016 Oscars).

The museum was built amid this discussion, making a striking architectural statement and showcasing 400 years of American history in a way it’s never been done before.

The architecture

From the outside, what’s noticeably peculiar about the building is its shape – a three-tiered, inverted trapezium. The building is a gargantuan warrior’s headdress glowing in the sun, inspired by the crowns of warriors featured in West African caryatids (structural columns carved into figures).   

Courtesy Alan Karchmer

Adjaye Associates, Freelon Group, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroupJJR, the four architectural firms that collaborated on the design of National Museum of African American History and Culture, have dubbed the façade of the NMAAHC “the corona.” But this shell is merely one design piece of a museum that’s meant to be the symbol of African-American history and culture in the United States. In February 2012, the building’s lead designer, David Adjaye, told Smithsonian Magazine that the overarching theme is “praise.”  

“When I say ‘praise,’ I envision it as a human posture,” he explained. “It’s the idea that you come from the ground up, rather than crouching down or leaning. The form of the building suggests a very upward mobility. It’s a ziggurat that moves upward into the sky, rather than downward into the ground.”  

The 3,600 bronze-coloured cast-aluminum plates that cover the entire exterior of the building, represent the ironwork of African-American craftsmen in New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah. It’s a modern-day interpretation, but it’s a functional one too. Each plate varies in porosity in order to modulate solar glare and, depending on where you’re standing inside the building, frame views of the Washington Monument and White House.

On the south side of the museum, a 200-foot clear span and 60-foot cantilever christened, “the porch,” is the only part of the structure with unobstructed views to National Mall grounds. It’s an ode to the way that African Americans used the porch as a true extension of the interior living environment.

Zena Howard, senior project manager on NMAAHC, architect with the Freelon Group and one of some 200 African-American women practicing architecture in the United States, feels akin to these emblematic design gestures. “[In my family], we used the porch for everything: any time you had to get your hair braided, it was on the porch; my mother would put us out on the porch and have us shucking corn—it was always the porch.”

The mission

For Howard, telling the 400-year story of the black experience in America is a way of recognizing the contributions of people whose roots are in Africa. “The nation as a whole is finally, in a very public way, recognizing and celebrating the contributions and culture of African-Americans. That’s a first,” she says.

Courtesy Alan Karchmer

Commissioned by the Bush administration back in 2003, it took more than a decade to raise the whopping $500 million needed to plan and construct the NMAAHC (all figures in U.S. dollars). The Smithsonian institution, backed by the U.S. government, committed to half of the funding, with the other half raised among private donors – including celebrities, foundations and corporations such as Michael Jordan ($5 million), the Oprah Winfrey Foundation ($20 million) and the Walt Disney Corporation ($2 million).

As for the inaugural exhibits, there are three history galleries that take up the entirety of 85,000 square feet (7,900 square metres) descending three floors below the main entrance. The way that visitors are meant to view the museum goes back to that overarching theme of praise and ascent: “People travel down from the concourse level to the beginning of the bottom level, and make their way up through a series of ramps. So you’re kind of climbing upward,” says Melanie Ide of Ralph Applebaum & Associates, the exhibit designers on the project.

The “Slavery and Freedom” gallery contains powerful artifacts including Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymn book from 1876, shackles used on an enslaved child and a slave cabin from South Carolina. Visitors slowly rise to the “Defending Freedom and Defining Freedom” gallery, which showcases a dress made by Rosa Parks, a segregated Southern Railway car from the Jim Crow era, and a house built in 1874 that was lived in by freed slaves in Maryland.

The last of the below-concourse history exhibits continues the story past 1968, emphasizing the Black Power era of the 1960s and 70s, from the death of Martin Luther King Jr. to the Black Panthers and the rise of the black middle class. We finish on homemade posters of Barack Obama from the 2008 presidential election.  

For Ide, whose résumé as a museum planner and exhibit designer includes the Clinton Presidential Library, New York’s Museum of Natural History and Hawaii’s Bishop Museum, the NMAAHC is a platform to educate people: “You can’t really go anywhere else and get 400 years of America’s history,” she says. “I think the idea that this is African-American history is actually not accurate. It’s simply America’s history, and I’d say the real story told for the first time.”

With another eight galleries on the third and fourth floor illuminating the black struggle to find place in modern American society, as well as their contributions to sport, music, and the military, there’s a variety of emotions visitors will feel as they move through the edifice. “There’s space for reflection, there’s space for surprise, there’s space for feeling proud, there’s space for celebrating,” says Ide. “There’s so much richness, and at the same time, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. Just like any museum, you know, you’re only telling them a little bit of the story.”

This article was originally published Sept. 20, 2017

Published Tuesday, July 4th 2017

Header image credit: Courtesy Alan Karchmer

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