Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture
Architect, Frelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC, for short) is the Smithsonian’s newest museum. It is not the first Smithsonian museum to be devoted to African-American culture. That would be the Smithsonian’s long-lived and under-staffed Anacostia Community Museum. Founded in 1967, the Anacostia museum was a radical gesture of outreach in its time, from white, centralized, official “Washington” to another place: black, impoverished “DC.” NMAAHC then specifically represents not recognition but a salutary placement of African-American culture and identity directly in the purview of the Smithsonian’s other “master” museums. Organizationally, it bears some similarities to the Smithsonian’s other museum of unabashed cultural identity, the National Museum of the American Indian. While some right-wing cultural critics may decry the Smithsonian’s bowing to “identity politics” by allowing them in at all, one might just as easily note these two museums are located at the very edges of the museum complex, both in antipodal spaces that were long considered inauspicious or just unbuildable. And both have worked wonders in erecting astonishing, original, and quite beautiful buildings from the leftover sites they were given, in the process presenting a dramatic contrast to the often blandly modernist or conventionally traditional buildings that make up much of the museum complex. The symbolism of this is lost on nobody. To be sure, there have been predictably partisan controversies over aspects of the display (like some right-wing whining that Clarence Thomas is not adequately adulated in NMAAHC). But both museums are fundamentally the product of bipartisan coalitions, the sort of thing we now lament as extinct. Essential to NMAAHC was the steadfast support of George W. Bush, who signed the museum project into law, and attended the opening. Even more, while the House sponsor of the legislation was Georgia’s John Lewis, legendary legislator and crusader for civil rights, its Senate sponsor was arch-Republican Sam Brownback.
NMAAHC’s award-winning building is a dazzling, complex array of angular spaces, which reads in different ways from different viewpoints. In height and general massing it is similar enough to the other museums and government buildings in its neighborhood. But it also different enough in coloration and ornamentation that it also distinguishes itself, the only Smithsonian museum with an exterior not limestone or marble. It also provides a marvelous transition between the dense, urban buildings on the museum portion of the Mall and the open spaces by the Washington Monument and the western part of the Mall. Indeed, the angles of its upper sections directly address the angular top of the obelisk of the Washington Monument. Thus the Mall’s newest resident is a sort of punctuation mark, which clearly locates itself in connection with the original monument of the entire locale (totem, of course, of the nation’s very originator) and all that has grown up around him. Again, none of this pragmatic description of the space and makeup of the NMAAHC can be seen without metaphoric significance for the place of African-American identity in this long-standingly majority-White nation. It is a building, and a museum, that speaks back, inscribing in detail African-American presence and the long reality of enslavement in the American story of which the Smithsonian is the nation’s privileged keeper. Indeed, it specifically suggests far deeper and wider roots than the unornamented, abstracted token of George Washington. The corona of metal latticework that surrounds the building is shaped in a way that harks back to traditional three-tiered Yoruban crowns common to West Africa, a distinctive shape which is also the very logo of the museum. The intricate, filigreed latticework itself, which is visible both inside and outside the museum, is also an homage to the distinctive metalwork done by enslaved African-Americans throughout the South.
Beyond symbolism, even quite literally the building intimates the deep and complex roots of slavery. NMAAHC is the deepest of Smithsonian museums, excavated to 80 feet below grade. Some of the museum’s most somber, powerful and even shocking displays are to be found deep underground. They present to the general public the reality of centuries of slavery: shackles, whips, a slave ship and much more. In a way not even hinted at in its external appearance, NMAAHC quite consciously, and indeed brilliantly, converts physical space into historical time. Visitors begin their journey in a large elevator which drops from the low concourse to several deeper levels. Dates marked on the elevator shaft during the descent turn the calendar back centuries, going far before 1776 to 1619, the year of first arrival on American shores of Africans kidnapped for enslavement. Whereas the Washington Monument perches quite uneasily on a flat platform over loamy soil in which it has hardly settled, NMAAHC has roots, roots that can still shock the visitor, deep down in the American soil, dating back to more than a century even before Washington’s birth in 1732.
NMAAHC’s bright, airy above ground floors follow African-American experience into more familiar times, of Jim Crow, race riots, segregation, and the struggle for civil rights. But in the process of widening the scope, and adopting an African-American viewpoint, America itself is a bit defamilarized from the conventional story. Perhaps a thousand yards away from the Jefferson Memorial, with its quotations that make Jefferson sound like an abolitionist, in NMAAHC a vast and menacing bronze statue of Jefferson looms, almost blocking the visitor’s path into the open air of the floors above. This Jefferson, though immediately recognizable, stares down at the viewer in a chilly gaze. He holds a book, but not the scientific or philosophical tomes for which he is best known. It is an account book. Behind him are 609 bricks each stamped with a name corresponding to the equal number of slaves he owned (on more than one plantation), at least six of whom were his own children. Floors away, this path ends with (might one say it “leads to”?) the election of a black president, but on the way it is a vastly different story, from a different viewpoint, than that of many previous accounts of American history.
NMAAHC’s upper floors celebrate in detail black achievement across diverse fields from sports to business to all areas of culture. For many viewers, both black and white, these exhibits are sort of a relief. But it is just as obvious that they are a flowering superstructure from roots centuries long and unsparingly detailed. On which account, perhaps the most striking and heartening thing about NMAAHC is that it has instantly become one of the Smithsonian’s most popular museums. While it has not been universally applaud the building has even required stepped-up maintenance to counteract the wear and tear of so many visitors, eager to connect with its story.