History Lesson:

New Museum Spotlights: African American History

In 2016, African-American history gained a forever home on the national stage. To say it was a long time coming would be an understatement.

However, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) isn’t exactly a first. From Selma to San Francisco, Tuskegee to Topeka, the United States has dozens of museums focused on the tragedies and triumphs of the African American experience. None, however, matches the depth, scope and size of the NMAAHC.

The significance of the museum, symbolically and otherwise, can’t be missed. Isolated on the northwest corner of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., stands an impressive structure resembling a giant Yoruba crown. Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye—with the help of renowned African-American architects Phil Freelon and the late J. Max Bond Jr.—designed the museum, built to house more than 37,000 artifacts.

The building itself—a three-tiered geometric mass of metal—reflects the nature of the project, of the weighty subject matter within.

Inside the ascendant bronze walls lie 400,000 square feet dedicated to the struggle for equality, the story of race in America. Exhibits feature Nat Turner’s Bible and slave ship diagrams, Jack Johnson’s boxing glove and James Brown concert posters. Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin and George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic all make appearances.

Despite the heavy material and bold architecture, the museum is in many ways fairly typical—its predilection for artifact-based exposition and linear storytelling are well-worn features of Smithsonian narration. Even otherwise sympathetic critics have suggested the museum’s exhibitions are constrained by the condensing. The comprehensiveness of the museum’s mission requires compaction, and indeed, the experience of the museum can sometimes recall the systematic sobriety of a classroom textbook.

If this approach can seem dry, it’s also necessary—and stimulating. Black history as told in the halls of other institutions often renders African Americans as static characters—inert victims. The linear quality of the museum’s storytelling reminds viewers of African American agency, reinforcing the idea that kernels of progress, however small, are grabbed and not granted.

Museums run the risk of their material seeming firmly settled whenever history is formally presented. The hollowness of such a falsity is perhaps nowhere more obvious than the NMAAHC. That significant progress has been made and that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream remains largely unfulfilled are irreconcilable and irrefutable truths. The design of the museum—both outside and in—pays tribute to these truths and offers the experience not just of education, but also of elevation, of rising up, of transcendence.

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