Reflections on the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Wow. That is one word that kept repeating itself in my mind during my visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) this past Thursday afternoon. The museum provides an experience that is amazing, powerful, thought-provoking and definitely full of emotions.  

Starting with the building itself…as many of you have probably seen, it is amazing- the outside almost looks like a sort of woven pattern to me. There are escalators that go up to the higher floors and this offers an interesting view on the building since it is when you are closest to the outside (when you are inside the building).

I have read a lot of great articles about the design of the building- here is a good one from NPR. Both the location and design are very integral to the identity of the museum. I had no idea before reading articles that the location of the museum had been debated for a while.

It is very hard to describe the full experience as it is one that is powerful, yet intense. The museum is separated between history, seen in three floors below ground, and culture, which is the floors higher up. The history section extended back to include content from hundred and hundreds of years ago, including the roots of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage, the Civil Rights Movement and up to where we are today. This history section makes visitors really think both about how far we’ve come and where we need to go. The underground floors were very crowded, and there are sections that I wasn’t able to see- which is understandable due to the crowds.

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I would have liked to have taken a few more photos to show from the history section, but I was really trying to just read and absorb all the information there. One aspect of the museum that stood out to me was the number of videos (produced by the Smithsonian) that were in the museum.

And then we get to the culture section of the museum. After all the emotions of the lower floors, I was definitely ready to go upstairs. The museum’s culture section includes not just art, but displays about African American sports, dance, food and fashion. To learn more about how all of that is fit into the museum, read this article.

Kriston Capps for Washington City Paper seemed to summarize the feeling of transitioning from one section of the museum to another very well: “The visual art galleries on the fourth floor will hit viewers like a cool blast of air conditioning.” The history floors are incredibly important, but I knew I was looking forward to the art afterwards. 

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The visual art section was full of vibrant colors and different materials. Most of the pieces included historical aspects through the imagery or shapes- I found it especially important to read the labels for these art pieces in order to get the full picture. As someone who looks forward to seeing the next exhibitions, I am wondering how the rotation of exhibitions will work for the visual art section.

One of my favorite artworks on display is the one at the top of this post titled “Sankofa II,” by James Phillips. I found the piece visually appealing, but the label revealed more. The museum label explained some of the symbols used in the piece and their significance: “One of the visual symbols of Sankofa is the heart, represented here in the painting. In addition to several other Akan symbols (mostly derived from Adimkra cloth), Phillips included Yoruba (Shango’s double ax), and Haitian (the rooster) symbols. Together they represent themes relating to unity, struggle, and common values.” 

Without a doubt, NMAAHC is an extremely well designed, thought-provoking, and meaningful museum. I felt really fortunate to have been able to snag tickets for the first week it was open. The amount of detailed planning that appears to have gone into every aspect of the museum is very striking and simply fantastic.

All photos by Hanna.

3 Comments

  1. Hanna, first I am so jealous you got to see the museum – I’ve only heard amazing things. You did an awesome job giving us a lot of information while still keeping your post concise and easy to read. Your use of bolded words is helpful to readers because it helps narrow our focus on what you “the expert” think is most important. I like that you linked to the NPR article – that was definitely helpful and established that you had prior knowledge of the museum’s design. I also love all of your pictures and the personal touch you added by telling us your favorite piece

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  2. I love how you went into full detail about the museum’s layout, since this really prepares potential future guests (me!) for how I should be scheduling my first trip there. Your use of bold fonts to really helped me to follow along with your main points, so great way to structure the post. Your post definitely has me looking forward to having the time for my first trip there!

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