A New National Museum Worth a Visit
February seems like a good time to talk about our visit to the almost-new National Museum of African-American History and Culture this past year. This is the newest addition to the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of museums on the mall in Washington D.C. Yes, the name of this new museum (NMAAHC) is a mouthful; most people just refer to it as the African-American museum. Needless to say, it is not just for African-Americans, and people of all ethnicities and backgrounds are encouraged to visit.
At the time we visited, the museum was quite crowded and probably still is. You can make reservations online in advance (highly recommended) or you can make online reservations first thing in the morning for last-minute tickets that day. This plan worked out well for us. Like all the Smithsonian museums, this museum is free. Passes are for certain times of day but once you are in the building you can stay as long as you like. Don’t ask me what the gift shop is like because it was so packed when we were there, we didn’t even stop to shop.
The museum’s design is very distinctive with ornate bronze-colored grillwork covering plate glass windows. It really is a beautiful building and the filigree pattern outside lets in lots of light. There is an African statue in in the lobby that shows how the architect got the idea for the building’s design from an elaborate traditional headdress of a chieftain. The museum makes for a great photograph when aligned with the Washington Monument just down the mall.
Once in the museum we stood in a line (it moved fast) to take an elevator down three floors to where the story starts with the slavery era, dating from the 1400’s to Reconstruction in 1877. The next floor up focuses on the era of segregation, post-Civil War to 1968, and then up to a floor dedicated to a changing America from 1968 to the present.
Some of the most gripping exhibits, literally and figuratively, include the heavy chains and manacles the slaves were forced to wear, along with those 18th century diagrams of how many slaves were crammed into these stinking ships in horrifying conditions on what is referred to as The Middle Passage.
Also on display are old newspaper advertisements for slave auctions (for example, one announces that a mother may be sold with her young child or separately) and posters advertising rewards for finding runaway slaves. There are also exhibits on the Underground Railroad, including the life and work of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, along with the work of abolitionists who fought to abolish slavery.
Some exhibits from the early 20th century are pretty horrifying too, especially the photos of black lynching victims hanging from trees while a white crowd looks on, sometimes even laughing, sometimes with their children in tow. There are also KKK hoods on display along with photos of Klan rallies not just in the South, but the Midwest as well.
The next floor up is devoted to the Civil Rights era and includes many video clips as well as still photos of people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders. As you go up from floor to floor, the architect’s original idea becomes clear. The visitor starts out in the depths of misery with the slavery era and climbs up through the past to the present day. Even though race in the US is still a fraught subject, the museum-goer may recall Maya Angelou’s famous quote “And Still I Rise”. Certainly I would describe the museum as a whole as inspiring rather than depressing.
Once you complete the historical part of the museum you can go up to one of the upper floors, spotlighting African-American arts, music and culture. Enjoying pride of place here (you can’t possibly miss it) is a fire-engine-red 1973 Cadillac El Dorado convertible that belonged to Chuck Berry. It’s about the size of a small yacht and it’s a wonderful pick-me-up after the somber history displayed so well on the lower floors of the museum.
All of the Smithsonian museums are national treasures that keep American history alive for all who visit. As the government shutdown (as of this writing, merely postponed) is so much in the news, let’s hope that things get settled soon for the benefit of all us.
Speaking of Black History Month, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has a very interesting new book out (available at your library) called “100 Amazing Facts about the Negro”. Prof. Gates borrowed the title as a homage to a book by that title, written by Joel Augustus Rogers and published in 1957. This new book is physically hefty, but not at all ponderous to read, with 100 very interesting short essays on different topics of note.