More Than a Museum: The Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Time starts at the bottom, pulling out moments that we ought not forget, placing together the building blocks of a larger picture of the present and the future, as we rise. Piecing together the whys and the hows, collections of family-held artifacts and truths that now become universal. How do objects hold stories? How do materials mark time? How do markers open us up to our own selves, our humanity, our lack thereof?
The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was established by law thirteen years ago, but its journey began nearly 100 years ago when African American civil war veterans began an effort to commemorate the African American story, lobbying for a presence on the national mall. Not surprisingly, it was Representative John Lewis, who, beginning in 1998, introduced bills nearly annually to create a National African American Heritage Museum and Memorial as part of the Smithsonian Institution. Lewis continued advocating for this institution until 2001 when the NMAAHC Plan for Action Presidential Commission was officially established.
I was fortunate to witness this journey of dreaming, championing and realizing this museum culminate in the cathartic and celebratory opening celebration during the Dedication Ceremony on a cloudy September weekend on the National Mall. Notable black political and cultural leaders shared their enthusiasm and tales of the long journey to arrive at where we were that day: the grand opening of “the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.” John Lewis brought us to our knees invoking his years of dedication and conviction despite reproach. We were wooed by black cultural luminaries Stevie Wonder—who performed “Where is Our Love Song”—and Patti LaBelle who proudly belted what felt like the anthem of the day: Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come.” Icons Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey waxed poetic, playfully competing to share favorite quotes by African American poets and writers. To close it out, the 99-year-old Ruth Bonner, daughter of a young slave who escaped to freedom, rang the Freedom Bell with the help of President Obama and the First Lady.
This convocation on the lawn of the National Mall was packed. Many visitors arrived hours before the gates opened. Notable figures had traveled far and wide to attend the ceremony. From this opening ceremony began an entire weekend-long Freedom Sounds Festival: A Community Celebration complete with music, dance, and spoken word performances, an interactive mural, storytelling, drum circles, and epic performances by Living Colour, Public Enemy, The Roots and more. Says Mark Puryear, a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program curator and co-curator of Freedom Sounds, “the themes of the festival highlight the social power of African American music as a communicator of cultural values, challenges, aspirations, and creative expression.”
I have never witnessed a museum opening quite like this. This wasn’t just the celebration of the opening of a new building or collection, but an act of collective joy, an overdue historic milestone, the black community staking unequivocal claim in the country’s historical narrative. The sentiment I witnessed in the air this weekend was familial—both literal and figurative families coming together to celebrate this new piece of our collective narrative—and intimate, laying bare the truth, and how it feels to confront it.
Like anyone who was able to secure an entry pass into the museum for opening weekend, our team hustled in to snag tickets in late August. In fact, in less than an hour of being first released, all 28,500 tickets to the opening weekend sold out. As of present, timed entry passes up until March 2017 have all been spoken for. It’s as if people all over the country had been waiting years for this moment. I maintain, this is not just a museum grand opening.
And this wasn’t just a museum grand opening because this is not just a museum. Even its physical structure defies the typical “white marble” mold we have come to expect from our buildings that hold history. As David Adjaye, the building’s lead designer, told the New York Times in an interview, “I wanted to see if we could make the silhouette of the building the beginning of the narrative.” And thus walking up to the bronze, layered and golden-glowing building, we began to unfold the narrative. The NMAAHC blog describes the architecture as depicting
“the corona, or the crown, [a] silhouette derived from the building’s inverted and stacked trapezoidal shape [that] continues to highlight the museum’s connection to the African Diaspora. The museum’s corona shape is based on carved wood columns like those created by Olowe of Ise, a Yoruba master carver in Nigeria. The building’s extension toward the sky is also an expression of faith, hope, and resiliency.”
Amanda Kolson Hurley describes this aesthetic significance expertly in her essay in Architecture Magazine: “there is rhetoric in its profile: dark, modernist, and African amid the stalwart Neoclassical temples of the Mall.” Divergent from architectural backdrop surrounding, the NMAAHC announces that it is telling a story that hasn’t yet been told.
I was struck by the powerful layout of the museum’s interior, which starts at the beginning of the African American experience: slavery, and literally rises up to modern expressions of black culture. The lowest floors are somber and lightless, and as you rise through the building and time, sunlight filters in increasingly until eventually you can see the National Mall, the trees, the context of the country, through the open windows.
Thousands of people huddled into these galleries on this coveted first weekend. The majority of visitors were African American, and I, myself, as a South Asian American felt humbled and honored to have been able to explore this part of my country’s history. On the lower floor we stood in front of a wall listing every slave ship that came to this continent, and the number of passengers upon departure and then arrival. The piece is striking. It was the first time I learned that large numbers of Africans died on the ships en route to the land of their servitude, often 50% of passengers. The three middle-aged black women I’d been trailing stopped suddenly in front of a listing on the wall, and one of the women pointed to it: “only one survived. There were one-hundred and seventy people on that ship and only one survived.” The women quietly walked away from their history as if it was a matter-of-fact. I stood with mouth agape. This was a truth about our country’s history, and I hadn’t been taught it. As I’d walk through the museum I would realize I hadn’t been taught a lot of things.
We turned the corner and entered into a dimly lit, chamber-like room as a hush fell over the crowd. This was the room that held the remnants of a Portuguese slave ship, including an iron ballast, a wooden pulley, quotes excerpted from a captain’s journal, and—most strikingly—shackles, including those from a tiny child. That artifact, in particular, seemed to ask everyone in the room to grapple with their own lineage, with the realities of the slave trade and thus the origins of our country. As one would expect, the move through this room was slow, and heavy.
As you lift out of the claustrophobic catacombs of history, you literally rise up floors as laws are passed, boycotts succeed, songs make waves, and the resilience and hope of the African American spirit prevails. The top level galleries become increasingly celebratory, joyful and empowered and depict the contributions of black culture and art. These rooms are brimful of artifacts, interactive media, video, and more.
One of my most potent memories of the museum was on the third floor when I inspected artifacts from political champion Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president for a major political party. In front of a collection of Chisholm’s campaign buttons and her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, a black mother regaled to her young daughter, the tales of this great woman. I, bearing witness, thought about the significance of this moment in history: now that Chisholm’s story and so many others are exposed proudly to the public on the National Mall, and in this young girl’s life: there is now a museum that tells her peoples’ history, models of strong black women who have changed the course of this country. Here, she could stand on the shoulders of giants. She, too, could be unbought and unbossed. She could aim as high as she wanted.
I overheard one guest mentioning that the museum looked as if it had risen out of the ground with its upward-pointing design. It’s as if the truth had been buried and had to be excavated, and the NMAAHC did just that. If education is power, and these pieces of history had not been collected, contextualized, and given a platform to teach us about ourselves as a country, we would forever be ignorant to the full narrative about our country. I consider myself to be educated, but there were so many stories in this museum that I had not heard, voices that had clearly been hushed. “It was an overwhelming experience to witness the collective nature of our existence, history and presence in this nation and know that I am a part of it,” explained St. Louis-based black artist and designer De Nichols, there to celebrate her team’s sculpture—created in response to Mike Brown’s death—recently acquired by the museum.
At the opening ceremony, President Obama addressed this sense of black identity within the larger story of this country, when he proclaimed that the museum:
“reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America.”
The NMAAHC is more than a museum. It’s opening weekend was a declaration of power, its placement in the National Mall a salute to its centrality in our history, and its galleries a reclamation of stories that had been quieted. Now, as the museum’s director Lonnie Birch proclaims, “this building will sing for all of us.” It is up to us, as a country, to sing along.