How a Museum Captures African American History

A floor-by-floor preview of the Smithsonian’s National African American Museum of History and Culture

Douglas Remley / Smithsonian

One of the most difficult lessons to learn about racism today is one of the first to be gleaned at the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens to the world on September 24. On the lowest concourse, deep in the museum’s basement levels, exhibits about slavery explain that the trans-Atlantic slave trade wasn’t motivated by racism.

Racism came after. This isn’t new information, but it isn’t conventional wisdom in America today. “Enslaved Africans, European indentured servants, and Native Americans worked alongside one another as they cultivated tobacco,” reads an exhibit on life in the Chesapeake region. Planters grew fearful of the interracial friendships, marriages, and alliances—and rebellions—that characterized life in the colonies. “Africans were ultimately defined as ‘enslaved for life,’ and the concept of whiteness began to develop.”

The design of the museum, from the bottom up, which is the direction in which it’s intended to be seen by visitors, reflects that history. The lowest-level galleries on the slave trade and the Middle Passage are tight and narrow. They eventually open up to an expansive concourse that sets the stage for the fight for freedom that extends to today. Exhibits in this majestic hall range from a statue of Thomas Jefferson framed by bricks bearing the names of slaves who built Monticello to a house built in a freedmen’s settlement in Montgomery County, Maryland.

The Smithsonian’s new museum—the last to be built on the National Mall—follows the African-American experience through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. The museum proceeds chronologically, escalating from African and pre-colonial history (in the third and lowest basement level) to contemporary art (on the fourth floor). It’s a massive undertaking, sometimes breathtaking. And the architecture of the museum both builds and hinders its narrative.

Douglas Remley / Smithsonian

Some 60 percent of the building is below grade; the historical galleries all fall along three underground mezzanine levels. To create exhibition space so far below ground, Davis Brody Bond—the same architecture firm responsible for the largely subterranean National September 11 Memorial and Museum—had to build a concrete container in which the museum sits, a bucket with walls rising 75 feet high that frame the entire historical experience.

“The largest challenge was water,” Anderson says. “Everything west and south of the Washington Monument was infill. It was all swampland. When you dig down 12 feet, you hit the water table. We had to build essentially an inside-out bathtub in order to keep the water out of the building.”

Visitors pass from the narrow hall on slavery into this major space, following a ramp that shepherds them past several iconic exhibits: the pointed Monticello statues, a slave cabin, the Jones-Hall-Sims House, a segregation-era railcar, and a prison tower from the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary (nicknamed Angola) among them. This fairly linear course then deposits viewers at a Reconstruction gallery, on the second mezzanine level, with information-heavy exhibits that characterize most of the rest of the museum.

“We thought the added volume made sense,” says Phil Freelon, one of the principal architects responsible for the building’s design, discussing how the area of the history galleries doubled during the museum buildout. “As you move through history, you’re able to see different aspects of the exhibits from varying perspectives. Which adds another layer of understanding to the overall sweep of history.”

One of the great strengths of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is its heavy emphasis on place. There are rich maps scattered throughout the museum that showcase the many migrations that have defined black history: from the domestic slave trade (after the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807) to the Great Migration during the early- and mid-20th century to subsequent returns to the South. These maps explain how the African American experience shifted within the states, and how states and the nation changed inalterably as a result.

Where the museum may lose viewers, however, is in its sweeping chronology, which is lost over too many side-by-side displays. Many of the exhibits (designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates) serve as portals, with a chunk of text paired with images, or often a video screen, alongside some essential artifacts. Unfortunately, atomic exhibits about the constituent people, places, and moments from Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era don’t add up to clear and comprehensive categories.

Problems are few in number, but the museum’s biggest ones start with the entry procession. It isn’t immediately clear that viewers ought to take one of two elevators down to the lowest concourse to begin. And it isn’t exactly clear how the escalators connect from one level to the next—though these passages ofter some of the best vistas within the building and through its exterior filigree, which looks as delicate as lace when seen from the inside.

Douglas Remley / Smithsonian

From design to execution, the largest changes to the museum happened inside the museum’s central hall. The dipping, timber-lined ceiling initially envisioned for the atrium fell off along the way. (The architects say that the space is now more suitable for performance and static art.) Still, one of the museum’s most important metaphors was maintained in the form of its grand vistas: Floor-to-ceiling windows comprise the four walls of the building’s entrance level, opening the museum to the world outside. Portals throughout the the upper floors emphasize the effect.

“What you’re getting is the journey from the very soil—the very depths, the crypts, the chamber—right through to getting a panoptic lens, a panoptic reading of this important juncture of the National Mall and the Washington Monument,” says David Adjaye, the primary architect of the museum. “When you’re going into the upper galleries, you’re getting these windows that are framing the context and bringing [the Mall] into the content of the story.”

The community and culture galleries make up the third and fourth floors of the museum. (The Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts, on the museum’s second level, was not yet finished at the time of the preview.) The exhibits in the community section range widely. There’s a display on the legacy of Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress and the first black woman to run for president. There’s an exhibit on Mae Reeves, a legendary Philadelphia milliner. And there’s one on Ben Carson. This corner of the museum gives an impressionistic overview of community (a rather broad theme to begin with). While these exhibits are, again, very atomic—only loosely interconnected—they offer by and large the most satisfying insights into the lives and achievements of everyday black Americans.

There is no directionality to these floors, no wrong way to do them. Doing them right will take hours, maybe even days. The culture galleries include snippets of film, television, spoken word, and theater that may add up to hours of programming time. (This, in addition to reams of wall text.) With so much media on display—the number of screens seems to rise as a factor of the floor level—the fine art galleries on the fourth floor offer a welcome reprieve to information overload. (The art galleries are stacked, too, with a smart selection of paintings from across American history. In fact, this corner of the museum arrives as one of the finest art collections in the District.)

Douglas Remley / Smithsonian

The museum’s most impressive visual remains its iconic “corona,” which the architects say they drew from a West African caryatid design of Yoruban origin—a column with a base, a figure, and a capital or crown.

“Our general approach to the design of cultural facilities is to try to imbue the architecture with meaning,” Freelon says. “So that it’s contributing to the stories and the vision and mission of the institution. We did that sort of research to say, ‘What would be an appropriate expression, formally, for the building?’ We looked at a lot of different ideas and settled on the corona notion as a strong and powerful idea.”

There are many smaller moments of design excellence, however, that give the museum its grounding. One thoughtful gallery on the lowest level is a simple sidebar, a triangular cutaway space off the main corridor, that surveys the São José Paquete de Africa. The vessel was a slave ship bound from Mozambique to Brazil that wrecked, killing most of the 500 slaves it held as human cargo. Several ballast bars, which balanced the light weight of their bodies, are on display in this dark and intentionally haunting space. That the shape of this gallery reflects the trapezoidal edges of the museum’s exterior is no accident.

There are enough moments like these throughout the National Museum of African American History and Culture to make it a building that demands criss-crossing, back-and-forth viewing. It isn’t simple to say what the museum offers in the form of answers about progress or freedom or justice. It may be fair to say that it has none. Or that the museum is “making a way out of no way,” to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. (as this museum does).

According to Adjaye, the windows and cut-outs are key to ensuring that building is not static, but dynamic and responsive to the history around it.

“The idea is to laminate the experience of the outside world with the inside world, so you’re not disconnected from it,” Adjaye says. “It is not a narrative or a fantasy that is hermetically sealed. It’s a real history, that is relating to things that are around you and in you. And that is a very new idea.”

This article appears courtesy of CityLab.