National African American Museum of History and Culture
On the lower tip of Washington DC’s National Mall, a phoenix rises. Its golden bronze façade sparkles in the sunshine and glistens at twilight. Five stories high, it dominates a skyline whose neighboring structures are vastly different in hue, shape and size. Yet somehow it is at home, familiar, the family member who looks different but knowingly belongs.
It is the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The museum was established as the Smithsonian’s 19th museum by an Act of Congress signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003.
The museum is located across from the Washington Monument on the National Mall at the corner of Constitution Avenue. Both structures are visible from the northwest side of the museums standing side by side in perfect complement.
NMAAHC tells the long awaited story of African Americans. Of a people who have been instrumental in propelling the ideals, narrative and goals of America to its moral imperative; ‘that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
“To remember the rich history of the African American,” said its founding Director Lonnie Bunch. “To help American remember and confront its tortured racial past. But, also, while America should ponder the pain of slavery and segregation, also find the joy, the hope, the resilience, the spirituality that was endemic in this community.”
NMAAHC is a museum that itself is a statement. Its placement on the National Mall is a homage to the many who have gathered, marched, demanded equal rights, challenged the government and ultimately changed hearts and minds.
The Corona, the museum façade of elaborate ironwork, engulfs the traditional Greco-Roman form of the museums building and is a proclamation of artistry and royalty. Corona is defined as a light seen around a luminous body, the upper portion or crown of a part as of the head. The museum’s corona was inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in the Yoruban art of West Africa. Take note, the structure seems to say, there are Kings and Queens here! The intricate ironwork that makes up the corona speaks to the architectural roots and work by enslaved African Americans in the American South. The museums entrance is a welcoming porch, a mainstay throughout the African Diaspora that lives today.
All this history without yet venturing inside!
Inside. Powerful! Wonderous! Fabulous! American!
Be warned, the narrative inside these royal walls are not the falsettos of an aborted past, a stilted retelling of slavery, an anecdotal mention of a bus boycott. It is a rich history that travels through a dark beginning, the early crossings, the building of a super nation, freedom, independence and the power of a culture on the masses.
It is told with painstakingly accuracy, filled with innumerable facts and figures. It is breathtaking and at times heart wrenching in its memorabilia. Visual imagery, art and artifacts are deftly placed and the museums use of today’s technology to relate past events is nothing short of inventive.
Let’s take a tour.
The museum is best experienced from the bottom up. Coinciding with the African American trek through history, galleries on the lower level reflect the various narratives of slavery and the fight for freedom. The story begins with the 15th century transatlantic slave trade, through the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Etchings on the walls show the number of African captives transported across the Atlantic to the Americas. 1649-1802 Denmark – 85,000; 1441-1836 Portugal 5.8 million; 1562-1807 Great Britain 3.3 million. ‘This trade, so beneficial to the Adventurers, and important to the State; a Trade sanctioned by the Clergy, supported by the Judges, and authorized by the laws’ – Robert Norris 1788’, quoted in the exhibit.
Slavery spawned and industry. The value of cotton produced by enslaved African Americans in 1832 was over $29.3 million dollars. Some of the first U.S. factories mass produced the tools used by or upon enslaved people.