ASPP visits the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. We explore the images, artifacts and documents that make up the rich and emotional experience of visiting this new national treasure on the Washington, DC Mall.
On a recent mild January day, I visited the new National African American History and Culture, known colloquially as the the African American Museum. It was on the eve of Martin Luther King’s Birthday and for many was an early holiday and the occasion of family reunions for many Black families, who used the time to visit the museum together.
The museum is placed on the Mall, mere steps from the Washington Monument on the location of a cotton plantation that had as many as 200 enslaved people. The shape of the cast aluminum inspired by the tiered crown of a sculpture of a Yoruba king.
The museum is at once a repository of memories and evidence, it also functions as a temple of prayer, hope and perspective. It functions on many levels to reconcile the over 500 years of struggle of a people with the small and large advances, with its constant barrage of insults and assaults with its equally constant flowering of achievement throughout the continuing march of time.
The journey through the collection is a physical walk through time, starting in the basement, reminiscent of the tight spaces a newly captured African might experience, the winding hallways like that of a slave ship gradually marching through centuries of of change both fast and slow, eventual making it in to beams of light both natural and artificial as we see pictures and artifacts closer and and closer to our own time.
The range of materials includes the sacred: prayer books of escaping slaves; the lace shawl of Harriet Tubman, presented to her by Queen Victoria, to the mundane, video of jazz bands and the first vision of Diahann Carroll in the role of “Julia” on television. The museum portrays the majesty and strategy of early African kings queens, translators and merchants, and leads us into the squalor and deprivation of what forced servitude can be. From two examples of plantation slave housing, to the Pullman cars that served as the workplace for many striving Black men in the 20th Century.. The exhibits had audio of the soaring speeches of Martin Luther King, the writings of Frederick Douglass, the presidents and activists of all colors that continue to fight for equality; and the hallowed and haunted inner sanctum that holds the coffin of Emmett Till and the photos and film of the era, evoking the fear and horror of the time.
Fortunately the designers of the building created an immense Room of Contemplation, with is loudly
cascading shower of water and light help to quiet the minds pictures and start the museum-goer on a path to reintegration and personal healing.
The volume of still photos both original prints and billboard-sized presentations; large scale transparencies, maps, animations, films, video reconstructions, audio; artifacts in wood, fiber and paper; furniture, actual buildings, vehicles of the ground and the air shapes this museum’s narrative in an almost overwhelming and weighty fashion as much as the physical tonnage could on the building itself. To properly grasp the scope and on any level full comprehend the nature of the struggle and the power of the overcoming of adversity will take multiple visits.