Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Visit: National Museum of African American History and Culture

The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American  History and Culture

I had the exciting opportunity to visit the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture a week ago with my department. A Washington, D.C. museum on African Americans was first proposed in 1915, authorized by congress in 2003, and was finally opened this year. It's been a long road.

Our ticket entry time was at 2pm. By closing time, I had only seen 2/3 of the History Galleries, and fleeting snippets of the Culture galleries. I missed approximately 3 floors of galleries. I also missed the gift shop, one of my must-do's at any museum I visit. It didn't matter. I loved it.

The Grand Staircase
(taken after the museum closed for the day)

This particular museum has the problem other museums would kill to have: the museum is at capacity every day, with visitors viewing the exhibits for hours and hours.


(SPOILER WARNING: The history itself is available elsewhere, but if you want to wait and be surprised on the museum experience, don't read any further.)

Let's boil it down:

How could you tell this in pieces? It had to be told in a narrative, from the beginning to the present. A lot of museums do this, yes, but what sets this apart is the amount of space allotted to telling this story. This allows the experience to be extensive and detailed. You get to see the lives lived between the major conflicts you are taught in school. You also get better insight on those major conflicts than you did in school.

Projectors showcase historic photos onto the wall

I do not think there is a museum in Washington that is more relevant to current events than this one. (Holocaust is in 2nd place, but I digress.). When you have something that actually speaks to them and is relevant to their family's history and story, you create an instant guest.

Powerful Visuals
This museum has powerful visuals. One of my favorites is a display titled The Paradox of Liberty. A bronze, life-sized statue of Thomas Jefferson greets you. Behind him are stacked bricks that tower over him, each baring a name of one of his slaves.

The Paradox of Liberty

Another visual is the entrance elevator. To enter the galleries, you have to take an elevator ride down to the bottom of the museum. Along the way, through the glass walls you can see significant dates passing away. So by the time you step off the elevator, you are no longer in 2016. You are in the 1400's.

Another great visual: Great views of the National Mall and
the sunset at the very top

Use of Space
This is a combo reason between Story and Powerful Visuals. The use of space in the gallery is exceptional. It gives the visitor another way to understand the story.

You begin the museum at the very bottom of the basement of the museum, three stories down. Where else would you start a story that begins with its people with little to no freedoms?

The space throughout these galleries reflects the African Americans' journey in history. Once you step off of the entrance elevator, you are in a low-ceiling exhibit space. As you proceed farther, the walls get closer, pushing people even closer together. We were told this was to symbolize how people felt being crammed in ships during the Middle Passage.

I found it was telling where the struggles were by the height of the ceiling. The first time you are able to see the top of the 3 story gallery after entering the gallery is when you get to the American Revolution. It's relief, but it almost feels like a tease -- the ceiling is so high above your head, it's unreachable Just like freedom was for slaves after the Revolution. You are soon again in another low-ceiling section, now continuing on towards the Civil War. When the Civil War is over, you are in the open again.

Another was climbing the levels. You have to climb a long ramp up to the next level. It's a journey. When climbing the 1st to 2nd floor ramp, you can also see the 2nd to 3rd floor ramp -- a sign that while slavery has ended and the story is momentarily happy, there are still more struggles ahead.

In the spaces in-between the ramps, there are contemplation
sitting areas and recording rooms where you can share your
story about your experience.

I am a visual person, and the layout really spoke to me. I felt I understood a lot better about the journey African Americans have gone through. There is more you can read into this museum. It's a very smart museum.

I did not have many staff experiences, but the ones I did see, both staff members were very knowledgeable about the exhibits. You ever walk into a museum and you can tell the security guard is bored out of his mind? Not here. Everyone was engaged and active. Maybe it's because it's still new, but it was great to see, to think everyone was taking responsibility to inform and educate.

It was an overwhelming experience. I teared up three times in that one gallery. I felt uncomfortable on the savageries humans have done to other humans. It was not right, it continues to not be right to any other human.

To know that not only were the word on the walls were spoken or happened, but they were also chosen by committees, written into documents, then painted onto the walls. Over and over these words have been repeated. People have been living with the creation of this gallery's story for years. Others have been living with this story for centuries. I only got a three-hour taste.

It is a masterpiece of a gallery. My only critique is there does not seem to be room to expand. If 2016 has taught me anything, it is that this story is far from over.

The story of the African American has long been overlooked from the nation's narrative. I am glad a museum worthy of its subject matter has a prominent spot on the National Mall in our nation's capital. I will be back one day to see a bit more... and maybe get into the gift shop.

Contemplation Court

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