Finally, Finally, Finally: The National Museum of African American History and Culture
I finally saw the phenomenal National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the way that it is designed to be experienced—with time to stroll and take it all in. And it is truly magnificent. Very well done.
Evidence of the work that we did with the NMAAHC team almost ten years ago, is clear throughout the galleries but especially in the subterranean history galleries. I’m only talking history galleries here; it’s too difficult to sum up 300,000 SF and 400 years in one blog post. In these spaces, I was reminded many times of the words of the thousands of individuals with whom we spoke about the purpose of the museum. In one of our final reports, founding director Lonnie Bunch wrote that the museum must:
“Help Americans remember, and by remembering stimulate a dialogue about race, and help to foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing. To be a beacon for the nation that reminds us of what we were, what challenges we still face, and to point us toward what we can become.”
Tell the truth and think globally—the history galleries start in an elevator where you simultaneously descend down and back in time to the 1400s. You disembark into various African countries and quickly load onto a Portuguese slave vessel bound for what is now Brazil. The exhibits use multi-disciplinary tactics like science – NMAAHC is actively working with marine biologist to unearth the remains of this and other slave vessels from the sea floor) and the math or economics of enslavement – illustrating how the foundations of the US economy and prosperity were and are based on free labor.
You emerge from the low-ceiling of the slave ship experience into the Declaration of Independence. This was truly awe-inspiring. The exhibition design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates takes the experience far beyond a stroll through a museum – this is an emotional journey. This 3-story wall stretches up and you feel as if you’re entering hope. The people were stolen from their land, taken to a new place and now there has been a war (American Revolution). Surely there will be change. Freedom. It’s very much about feeling. There are quotes on the wall, a few statues of notable African Americans of the time. This is where you breathe.
The emotions you experience as you move through the museum create a link between you and those who came before you. Throughout the history spaces you experience the same HOPE and desolation. It’s like being on a roller-coaster. Maybe this time, we’ll truly be free. Equal. It is impossible not to liken it to the feelings many of us have experienced in the political turmoil of 2016.
The Emmett Till coffin and gallery have been spoken of many times and there is a reason. The 14-year old was lynched in Money, Mississippi in 1955 for disrespecting a white woman in a store. The story is told from the perspective of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted that the funeral be open-casket saying, “let them see what they did to my baby”. Yet again, it was impossible for me not to connect this story to one in the present day, that of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old shot in Cleveland in 2015 less than 2 seconds after a policeman thought he saw him on the playground with a gun. As the mother of a black boy, this is where I broke.
But there is plenty of celebration of the high points and commemoration throughout the museum but none more so than in the civil rights portion of the galleries. Yet again, here the museum shines; it lifts you up. I couldn’t help but follow Congressman John Lewis as he walked through the galleries telling us what was happening in the images. It was inspiring because he was there. History came alive.
NMAAHC does not disappoint. It is effective because it is undeniable that these things happened…and that they happened in America. It is now in stone—or rather aluminum. That is the hope, that maybe by showing what African Americans have gone through, achieved and are doing, there will be respect. Hope springs eternal.