African American History

This new museum is challenging and uplifting.

I experienced this museum as a tribute to the irrepressibility of the human spirit. It is powerful. Give yourself time to absorb it.

The museum building is unique and the thousands of artifacts, images, videos, quotes and reflections are compelling. For me, the other visitors provided a huge portion of the impact. Families, sometimes four generations, took the elevator/time machine down three floors to the 1600’s. As they walked up through African American History, they spoke – the young questioning and the adults giving perspective. The elderly pointed to 20th Century exhibits and told their grandchildren where they had been at the time of Selma, of Rosa Parks, of Stokely Carmichael, of Malcom X and of Martin Luther King. When Nancy visited in June, there were some visitors sitting on benches, weeping.

The curators have not shied away from describing political and economic repression and the part it has played in African American History. There are also other narratives that inspired me, including the history of individuals who risked everything to be leaders throughout the four hundred years. Some were famous, some educated, but many were just strong people – committed to justice, opportunity for everyone and the certainty that “All Men Are Created Equal”. Women were at the forefront throughout and ahead of their time as leaders. I knew about Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman, there were so many more.

The museum offers countless examples of loving humans creating and being sustained by community, especially in churches. In one exhibit, a prized family piano is surrounded pictures of people gathering with song, food and music. Many of the exhibits have the implied message that while African Americans were first enslaved and then discriminated against in jobs and society, many defined themselves with lives of determination, dignity and love. The museum shows parents who were committed to their children, couples who took care of their neighbors, churches who gathered the faithful, and families that gathered and passed down strong traditions and style. People taught themselves to read after working 14 hours a day.

In one popular exhibit, visitors are encouraged to go into a video recording booth and add their stories to the museum collection as oral histories. In another, visitors can thumb through racks containing the music which served as the sound track for these 400 years – and then listen to their selection.   On the second-floor people can research their own genealogy with access to digital resources and expert guidance.

Conceived in the 1970’s, the museum was authorized by President George W. Bush and Congress. President Barak Obama spoke at its dedication.

Lonnie Bunch was the museum’s founding director in 2005. He had no collection, no staff, no money and no site for the museum. More than half of the funds for the building have come from the federal government; the balance has been raised and provided by a group of private donors, including Michael Jordan, the television producer Shonda Rhimes, Gwen Ifill and Oprah Winfrey – whose contribution of more than twenty million dollars is commemorated by the museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theatre.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

The building was designed by David Adjaye, Ghanaian born and based in London. He also designed Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art. A monumental, cathedral-like atrium extends skyward from the first floor. The inverted three tier design is a reference to the Yoruba beaded crowns found in West Africa. From a distance, the upper floors seem to point down to the three floors of history beneath.

The 400,000-square foot building is on a five-acre site close to the Washington Monument. The museum is built on the last available parcel on the National Mall.

Image from the Chicago Tribune

The glass walls are sheathed in a lattice of aluminum covered by bronze which evokes ironwork filigree made by slaves. The visitor looks out onto the Washington Monument, the National Mall and the Arlington National Cemetery through the iron.

The historical timeline begins three stories below ground and visitors follow the path up through history chronologically. The light filled floors above ground are organized around themes like sports, the arts and the military. I expect the lower floors will be a growing ‘permanent collection’ while the upper floors will change. On the top tier of the museum, there is a rotunda room surrounded by screens at the top of the walls. They display modern and current events. It is a perfect way to signal that African American History is still being written.

Image from

There is a beautiful room dedicated to quiet reflection – and I was grateful for it.

Gathering artifacts for the collection was challenging, especially for exhibits about the early years. Enslaved people did not gather possessions and dispersed families did not pass objects down to future generations. The curators went to fifteen cities and asked people to bring in artifacts which might help tell the story of African American History. They collected more than 40,000 objects and display about 3,500 of them. For me, the experience was more about the stories than the objects.

The museum tells stories with an almost overwhelming patchwork of signs and screens – each worth more time than I had. There are photographs, videos, drawings, books, quotes and reflections – and there are contemporaneous news reports of some of the best known historical events.

How to get passes?

First, the good news – admission is free.

Passes to the new National Museum of African American History & Culture are the most difficult tickets to get in the Smithsonian.   The challenge is that advance tickets must be reserved about four months in advance. I am told that the reserved passes go quickly, so try to sign on right at 9 AM. If you are successful, passes will be for entry at a specific date and time.

Link to the dates to reserve advanced passes to The National Museum of African American History and Culture

My group had not planned far enough ahead. I obtained ‘same-day’ passes which are available on-line at 6:30 AM each morning. I was at my computer by 6:25 AM with screen open to the following page: Link to obtain Same-Day Passes online.

Tip: I suggest a practice run. I clicked through to get tickets a few days before the day we actually wanted to go to the museum. I found that the site does not open precisely at 6:30. The page shows ‘No Passes Available’.   I found that I needed to refresh the page a few times before it showed timed entry tickets available. I opened several pages in my browser so that I could keep refreshing until I got through. By 6:34 AM, all of the passes were gone for the day.

Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Hardcover, September, 2016. $19.26.

Founding director Lonnie Bunch co-authored a remarkable collection of books on topics from African American Women, Civil Rights and a lost Slave ship. Many were published in 2015 in advance of the opening of the museum. Link to Books by Lonnie Bunch.