Vastness of African-American history and culture on national display

It might seem like an impossibility to focus on the joys, struggles, oppression, survival, accomplishments, pain and beauty of African Americans in one facility and do it well. However, the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., certainly has captured the essence of the diverse experiences of Black people, and it’s done in stellar style and depth.

Museum artweb

 

Located on the National Mall, the museum, which was decades in the dreaming/funding/building stages, opened on Sept. 24, 2016. The 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution, NMAAHC has a collection of more than 36,000 artifacts. With history galleries in three underground levels as well as culture and community galleries, exploration and heritage hall on the ground level and three upper floors, it’s the kind of place requiring multiple trips to see and experience in depth.

  • In the underground levels, there are galleries focusing on:
  • Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877
  • Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968
  • A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond

 

An interactive display table allows visitors to select music to be played and read about musical artists.

An interactive display table allows visitors to select music to be played and read about musical artists.

Among the highlights of the history galleries are displays on the Revolutionary War and Civil War, an interactive lunch counter, Emmet Till Memorial, exhibits on the domestic and international slave trades and more. In the upper floor displays, visitors encounter Culture Galleries and Community Galleries dealing with entertainment, visual arts, music, sports, military and an interactive “Explore Your Family History” display. 

Among the items one can view in the Musical Crossroads exhibit: Sammy Davis Jr.’s tap shoes, a uniform from Public Enemy and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac that was driven onto the stage of a St. Louis theater where he was turned away from as a child.

Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac, above, is one of many artifacts on display at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Photos by Gale Horton Gay

Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac, above, is one of many artifacts on display at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Photos by Gale Horton Gay

There are also multiple audio and video presentations throughout the museum. The Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, located on the second floor, is a space where visitors can find digital resources related to family history—including the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, receive guidance on how to conduct genealogical research and oral history interviews—view family history objects, and learn how to preserve family films, videos and photographs.

As one walks along ramps connecting one level to another, there are places to sit and take a breather while watching a historic video projected on a massive wall.

“This museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the museum on NMAAHC’s website. “This is America’s story and this museum is for all Americans.”

The museum features a Contemplative Court with floor-to-ceiling waterfall.

The museum features a Contemplative Court with floor-to-ceiling waterfall.

Palates are also enticed as the museum features the Sweet Home Café, offering regional menu items such as Gullah-style hoppin’ John, shrimp and grits, NYC oyster roast, BBQ brisket and smoked haddock.

The range of artifacts on display clearly shows that almost everything from photographs, documents, shackles, art, hats, lynching rope, audio recollections, vinyl records, film of protests and even food collectively weave the story of the American-American experience.

I found myself mesmerized, saddened, surprised, proud and generally in awe of the facility and the collection.

The popularity of the museum has resulted in a requirement of free passes that set a specific entrance time. (On Nov. 1 the website announced the release of passes for visits in February 2018.) Some same-day passes can be obtained in person at the museum. Veterans with proper identification are given access to the museum without passes. The museum, which is open daily except on Dec. 25, offers a NMAAHC mobile app to complement one’s visit.

Go to www.nmaahc.si.edu for more information on the museum.

 

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