The new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, DC, opens to the public September 24. The $540 million facility presents the experience of African Americans in the US. Although the National Museum of American History focuses on some aspects of African Americans’ journey, the new museum has the space–400,000 square feet–to create a rich, multi-layered story. And that makes all the difference.
“This museum will advance the public conversation about racism,” said David Skorton, MD, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, at the media preview.
That conversation begins with the slave trade. Although many ethnic groups came to the United States, only Africans were forcibly brought here and turned from free people into slaves.
Visitors start underground with exhibits on the slave trade and on slavery. Among the many artifacts are shackles used to restrain captured Africans as they suffered through the long “Middle Passage,” the sea voyage from their homeland to the New World, as well as a slave cabin and an auction block.
As you ascend a ramp from the lowest level, the exhibits change, focusing on post-Civil War and the era of segregation. The museum will, said founding director Lonnie Bunch III, “help Americans remember and confront its tortured past and also find hope and spirituality. There will be moments of tears and moments of great joy.”
Along with slideshows of African American men protesting segregation, the museum also portrays the strength of the black communities and their culture. Near the slideshows of black men marching for their rights, you can see a photograph of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The juxtaposition is powerful.
Take time to explore the museum’s upper levels filled with voices, stories, and images of struggle and strength. How African Americans “made a way out of no way” resonates throughout the museum and not just in the similarly named gallery which emphasizes the buttressing support of black communities and religion. The military gallery details African Americans’ service from the Revolution through the Civil War and both World Wars, despite coming back to a largely segregated America.
Barrier-breaking athletes, musicians, singers, artists, and writers are celebrated. View the outfit Marian Anderson wore for her concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a venue chosen after she was barred from DAR Constitution Hall. Look at Carl Lewis’ gold medals and track shoes, Muhammed Ali’s headgear, Jackie Robinson’s baseball jersey and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible, a car that shouts success.
“We needed to craft a museum to help people of all races and ethnicities realize how the African American experience is the American experience,” said Bunch.
To do that the museum opens with 12 Inaugural galleries that feature nearly 4,000 artifacts. For most viewers, that’s too much to absorb in one visit. And that’s a good thing. Only by coming back will museum-goers be able to take in the many stories presented. Reserve free timed-entry tickets well in advance by going to the museum’s website.
Even though tickets are taken for the opening weekend, you can join the free celebratory party on the Mall. Check the museum’s website for details.