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National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a Smithsonian Institution museum located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in … See more


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Jan 14, 2023
Incredibly powerful moving experience. Museum is divided into two parts. The lower levels traces the history of slavery and segregation. The upper levels tells the modern stories. Everybody needs t… Full review by Jack241168
Jan 14, 2023
A great, fairly recent, new museum that offers a wonderful education on the experience, contributions, and history of African Americans. You need a reservation and afternoons (at least on the weeken… Full review by c1lm2
Jan 7, 2023
I try to make sure I visit at least once a year, both to ensure that I can catch the new exhibitions and to remember our legacy and her history. This is always a soul-filling experience with me, bot… Full review by worktotravel14


Inside the New Museum
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens September 24 on Washington D.C.'s National Mall.From a distance, the National Museum of African American History and Culture—the Smithsonian’s newest addition to its now 19-institution collection—doesn’t quite seem to fit in. But that’s also the magic of this bronze behemoth, an outlier in a row of marble and white stone on D.C.’s National Mall. It stands out, as it should; it’s a $540 million project—and a historical moment—roughly 100 years in the making. Traveler, along with several hundred other giddy members of the press, got a preview of the space this past week. Yes, we unabashedly jostled for the best views of the King of Pop’s fedora and Chuck Berry’s cherry-red Cadillac, but it was the quieter moments that left an impression.The 400,000-square-foot museum spans ten floors, five of which are underground, or ‘below grade’—and with so much to see, it can be tough to know where to start. So we put the question to Phil Freelon, the museum’s lead architect, to help guide us: We started with the history galleries, accessed via a “special elevator” that drops 70 feet and back to the 1400s, when the transatlantic slave trade began—a descent into historical darkness. The exhibits are titled simply, and emphatically: Slavery and Freedom. The Era of Segregation. 1968 and Beyond. Some artifacts are chilling, especially rusted wrought-iron shackles used during the Middle Passage and an actual slave cabin, transported nearly 550 miles from Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina. Once you arrive at “1968 and Beyond,” the exhibit “leaves the door open for the next piece of history, but also for the future,” says Freelon.Emerge from the museum’s underbelly, and there are still three other public floors to consider, though only two contain permanent galleries. On the third floor, community galleries dominate, with exhibits that touch on urban life, education, religion, and sports—of special note was a fiberglass reproduction of American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics, fists thrust upward in silent protest.The culture galleries on the fourth floor emphasize achievements in the arts: There’s a subdued tribute to author James Baldwin, whose yellowing, scrawled-out letters to friends and family sit under a thick panel of glass, near a grooved inkwell and an uncharacteristically smiling portrait of the literary doyen with his little sister, Paula. We also lingered over a gritty, graffiti-laden tribute to the history of the Bronx, where a collage of black-and-white photos was tacked beside a strip of chain link fence, offering up a more muted portrait of the violence that plagued the borough in the ‘70s. Nearby, short, spray-painted bursts of text told of the birth of hip-hop. It’s all set to the synthesized, aggrieved rhymes of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's “The Message”: “Don’t push me, ‘cuz I’m close to the edge; I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.” Beside the fence was what looked like a foldout table—the kind you only haul out of the garage for holidays and family gatherings at your mom’s request—on which sat two crates of laminated album covers. While it wasn’t entirely clear if they were free to be browsed, or if the museum staff just hadn’t placed the “Do Not Touch” sign on it just yet, it lent a welcome, interactive touch to a museum that seems to yield most of its gifts through quiet observation.Even Sweet Home Café, the museum’s restaurant, refuses to shy away from an opportunity for learning. Chef Jerome Grant, who previously led the kitchen at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe, explained the provenance of one dish, the Thomas Downing oyster pan roast, to Traveler: Downing, a free African American who moved from Virginia to New York City, opened a popular Oyster House, which served double-duty as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Take a seat beneath a blown-up black-and-white of the 1960 lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina; it'll give you some food for thought.We started with the history galleries, accessed via a “special elevator” that drops 70 feet and back to the 1400s, when the transatlantic slave trade began—a descent into historical darkness.With so much ground to cover, it’s no wonder that it has taken this long for the project to come to fruition. The idea for the museum was first proposed in 1916 by the National Memorial Association, but it wasn’t until December 2003—a near-century in years and attitudes later—that it was signed into legislation by President George W. Bush, with the backing of former U.S. Senators Sam Brownback and Rep. John Lewis. In 2005, Lonnie G. Bunch III, formerly the president of the Chicago Historical Society, was appointed founding director of the NMAAHC, and it was he who initiated the Save Our African American Treasures campaign in 2008, as a way to crowd-source the museum’s contents, like family heirlooms that had long been kept in the closet—literally and proverbially. To date, the museum has received more than 37,000 such items, including Nat Turner’s bible, and a lace and linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria. In 2009, an international design jury chose Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup as the project’s architectural and engineering team from a pool of five other contenders, including star firms like Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Moshe Safdie and Associates. Visitors can trace the museum’s long road to existence in the exhibit “A Century in the Making,” housed on the Concourse.Before long, the project began to generate buzz, receiving money from a handful of high-profile donors—including The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the Andrew Mellon Foundation; and David M. Rubenstein—and to date has raised $315 million in private funds. The official groundbreaking came in 2012, on a five-acre stretch between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—a not insignificant choice, since it’s the last available plot of land on the Mall. When it opens, the museum will be staffed by 200 employees and interns, who will tend to the 3,000 or so artifacts on display with an annual operating budget of about $44 million. That’s roughly the same as the 2015 operating budgets of both the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of American History, but a sliver of the National Museum of Natural History’s $117 million annual budget.The 3,600 bronze-colored aluminum panels that wrap around the building are made up of various densities, allowing different amounts of sunlight to pass through and color the interior.The 3,600 bronze-colored aluminum panels that wrap around the building are made up of various densities, allowing different amounts of sunlight to pass through and color the interior.Even amid the chaos of a harried staff throttling toward what promises to be a major museum opening, a general sense of reverence and calm exists around the museum. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s so long in the making, and a testament to a history that, even now, sometimes escapes the history books—but it’s also designed that way. The halls above ground are expansive and airy, the floors a perpetually changing canvas for the dappled sunlight that filters through the exterior’s panels. There are plenty of celebratory, even fun moments to be had here—who doesn’t want to watch clips of Beyoncé dancing, and Michael Jordan dunking, on an infinite loop? But the museum doesn’t shy away from the difficult ones, either. Much like the nearby U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the NMAAHC’s strength lies in the visceral power of its objects—Emmett Till’s glass-covered casket, and the sheen of a Ku Klux Klan robe, displayed near a series of “Whites Only” signs—and does them justice in their presentation.For all its fits and starts, the NMAAHC not only feels like a place to receive an education in American history—but a place where African Americans can see a reflection of themselves, and embrace a history that has long been denied them. It couldn’t come at a more significant moment, either, with Obama’s second and final term nearly over, and the rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement growing stronger and more impassioned. It’s an institutional acknowledgement of wrongdoing, a recognition of struggle, and best of all, a testament to achievement. We’re lucky to have it.The opening will be fêted with a three-day festival, “Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration,” starting Friday, Sept. 23, and will include performances by Public Enemy and The Roots. A ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony with President Obama follows on Saturday. We’d love to tell you to book the next plane, train, or bus ticket to see it for yourself—the museum’s granting free, timed passes to visitors, at a limit of six per order, for the indefinite future—but as of this posting, time slots are booked through October. Visit to get tickets for Thanksgiving and Christmas break.
Ever-Evolving Story of African-American History
A profound and essential American experience awaits you at the Smithsonian’s newest museum, which opened on September 24, 2016. Conceived as a place where visitors of all backgrounds might comprehend America’s narrative through an African-American lens, the museum succeeds on every level. History exhibits, culture galleries, and the museum’s architecture and design each express critical elements of the story. Turns out, many, many people are interested in understanding that story, meaning that the free timed passes the museum makes available online often sell out well in advance. Day-of passes are also available but they too are disappearing in the wink of an eye. If neither of these options works out for you, and you are here on a weekday, you can try for plan C: Go to the Madison Drive entrance to the museum by 1pm, when a limited number of walkup passes are released. The line forms well before 1pm, so get there early. Frustrating as it is, the effort is worth it. Located across from the Washington Monument, within view of the Lincoln Memorial and the White House, and next door to the National Museum of American History, the museum’s very placement nudges the visitor toward a contextual appreciation. The building belongs within this panoply, but it speaks for itself, a remarkable standout in this landscape of white stone structures. A three-tiered shell of bronze-colored panels, the “corona,” sheaths the museum’s glass-walled exterior, angling outward and upward, suggesting designs found in traditional West African sculpture and headware. The filigreed pattern of the corona mimics the ornate ironwork crafted by slaves in 19th-century New Orleans and Charleston. When you enter the museum, you are stepping inside a 400,000-square-foot space, 60% of which lies below ground. And down is where visitors go first, as that’s where the History Galleries, or “crypts,” are, the heart of the experience. The museum covers more than 500 years of history, starting in the 15th century with the transatlantic slave trade and continuing on to slavery in the U.S., the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and America since 1968. Ramps lead from one exhibit area and level to the next, creating different vantage points for viewing the artifacts and for connecting the gradual progression of events in time. This bottom-to-top touring offers a symbolic converse of that in place at the United States National Holocaust Memorial Museum, where you begin at the top floor and descend. Exhibits at both museums reveal history through chronological storytelling that focuses on the lives of ordinary and heroic individuals. And both museums provide areas of contemplation and reflection, where visitors can sit and take everything in, from the tragic facts to celebrations of the indomitable human spirit. Compelling, sometimes shocking, artifacts bring the history to life. These include shackles used by an enslaved child, an early 1800s weatherboard-clad slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina; Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymn book; a vintage, open-cockpit biplane used at Tuskegee Institute to train African-American pilots during World War II; the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter stools occupied on a February day in 1960 by four black college students who refused to move after being denied service; and assorted documents and artifacts that capture more recent developments, from the presidency of Barack Obama to the Black Lives Matter movement. On floors two and three above ground, “the Attic,” are exhibits that highlight African-American struggles and achievements exploring stories of place, region, and migration; how African Americans carved a way for themselves in a world that denied them opportunities; and African Americans’ contributions in sports and the military. The fourth floor’s Arts and Culture Galleries showcase African-American contributions in music, fashion, food, theater, and the visual arts. Displayed artifacts on these floors range from the outfit that Marian Anderson wore when she sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, to Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible, to artworks by Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett. The story of the museum itself is worth telling, too, and it is told here on the concourse level of the museum. “A Century in the Making” reveals that a group of black Civil War veterans are said to have proposed the idea for an African-American history museum in 1915. Congress took up the cause from time to time over the ensuing decades, finally enacting The NMAAHC Act in December 2003, establishing the museum within the Smithsonian Institution. A four-firm architectural unit won the design competition in 2009, groundbreaking took place on February 22, 2012, and construction began. Meanwhile, staff, starting from scratch, were traveling around the country amassing artifacts for exhibits. Today, more than half of the museum’s collection of 37,000 objects are donations. Given the NMAAHC’s multi-layered chronicling of African-American history from its very beginnings, it is moving that President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, was the person to cut the ribbon at its opening. But, say officials, that’s not the end of the story for African-American progress, nor for the museum. This is a living museum and it will continue to tell the ever-evolving story of African-American history and culture, which at this particular time in America is more necessary than ever.

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