Museum of African American History and Culture

You guys, this place is incredible. It sits just steps away from where the 1963 March on Washington began, at the base of the Washington Monument. The building itself is a work of art – three inverted bronze tiers evoke the crown sculpture motif of Yoruba – a beautiful and wonderful contrast to the uniformly white buildings so common to the Mall.

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Exterior of the African American Museum of History and Culture. Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian.

Inside, the museum is organized into two major themes – history on the lower levels and culture on the top levels. If you’re planning a visit, we recommend starting with the history sections first – it works contextually as well as emotionally to do it in that order. (Just a warning: the museum is super popular right now. Tickets are free, but they are “sold out” through March 2017).

HISTORY

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This iconic Life Magazine photo graces a photo collage wall outside the elevator to the history exhibits.

Entering the history exhibits requires a 70 foot descent via elevator to the beginnings of the slave trade. Visitors to the history exhibits are greeted with these words:

Five hundred years ago, a new form of slavery transformed Africa, Europe, and the Americas. For the first time, people saw other human beings as commodities – things to be bought, sold, and exploited to make enormous profits. This system changed the world.

The United States was created in this context, forged by slavery as well as a radical new concept, freedom. This is a shared story, a shared past, told through the lives of African Americans who helped form the nation.

Over the course of three floors we climbed through slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and more, all the way to the end of the Obama Presidency.

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The walls in one section are inscribed with the names of slave ships and how many people they carried (as well as how many survived). Photo by T.
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This model of a slave ship shows just how tightly packed in people were. Photo by T.
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A sculpture of Thomas Jefferson. Behind him, the bricks are each inscribed with the names of the slaves he owned. Photo via.
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High above the statue of Jefferson are his words. I couldn’t get the whole thing to fit in one picture. It is chilling. It is so well done. Photo by T.
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A Bible owned by Richard Collins (1869). He bought the Bible after emancipation and recorded his family’s names in it. “Doing so humanized them and removed them from the context of slavery.” Photo by T.

There are Klu Klux Klan uniforms, benches from the infamous Atlanta sit-ins, a segregated train car, planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, and don’t miss the Emmet Till room – it’s a heart breaker and so very, very important to see.

FOOD

After finishing the history sections, we paused for food. It was a relief to get off our feet for a while and process the previous few hours. We talked about what we learned, what surprised us, and we shared a very good meal. The cafe here is magnificent. Food inspired by African American culture from different regions of the U.S. is on offer. Check out the menu here.

CULTURE

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A display wall of quotes from the culture exhibits. Photo by T.

The culture exhibits are as uplifting as they are impressive. In stark contrast to the hushed and respectful whispers of the lower floors, here there is lively chatter, singing, and laughing. Again, the amount of information on display here is staggering. It’s easy to get lost in it all, but fun too.

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A model of Parliament Funkadelic’s Mothership. Photo by T.

It’s a treasure trove of memorabilia from Oprah’s couch to Gabby Douglas’ gymnastics uniform, original costumes from The Wiz to original records from the Jackson Five.

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The Chicago Bears perform the Superbowl Shuffle. Photo by R.

One piece of controversy that’s been in the news, and is hard to not notice, is that there are no displays about Clarence Thomas. He is mentioned briefly in a display about Anita Hill’s sexual harassment testimony against him, but that’s it. Bill Cosby shows up a number of times. I am not sure what to make of it.

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Sculpture of the famous 1968 Olympics protest stand as a video display cycles through African American sports heroes, like Gabby Douglas, and their feats of athletic prowess. I really loved sitting in the bench seats provided and watching this unfold. Photo by T.

In leaving the museum I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that each exhibit – slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, music, dance, sports – could be its own museum. There is enough material to warrant it. And yet it is so powerful to see it all in one place. As densely packed as it is, the sheer concentration of artifacts and history forces us all to bear witness to the incredible impact African Americans have had on the nation’s landscape, and to the impact that this nation has had on them.

This is a continuing saga. This is not a zero sum game. Black Lives Matter.

One thought on “Museum of African American History and Culture

  1. So very impressive. I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know of its existence until this posting, but have added it to my list of things I must see whilst in DC. Thank you for sharing, T.

    Like

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