Last weekend part of my family and I had the opportunity to visit The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It is part of the group of Smithsonian Museums.
I didn’t know what to expect from this museum except that it would be excellent, as all Smithsonian ones are. My heritage is not African American, so I wondered if it would be as meaningful to me as it would to others. I found the museum to be one of the best I’ve ever visited. I was moved by displays in several areas of the museum. I can only imagine how citizens with African American heritage would feel.
History of the Museum
The idea of an African American museum has been discussed for over 100 years. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the idea began to build. Several overtures were made to Congress, but they failed primarily due to the cost. IN 2001, George W. Bush signed legislation for a committee to study the need, funding and location. It took until 2016 for the idea to become a reality.
Layout of the Museum
The museum was built in such a way that part of the museum is above ground and part is underground. When a visitor enters the museum, they are on Level One, named Heritage Hall, which has a large lobby with an information desk and the museum store.
From the main level, the museum’s historical galleries are below the ground. Visitors go down to the Concourse level which has a theater and cafe. It also has access to the three historical galleries. These galleries are also located underground where light and temperature are easier to control. The historical walk starts on the lowest of the underground levels.
There are three levels above Heritage Hall (Level One). Level Two is called Explore More – it is the education area of the museum. It houses a library, classrooms, and and an area to explore one’s heritage.
Level Three, the Community Galleries explore sports, military experiences, and a “Sense of Place.” Read more below about the Culture Galleries on Level Four.
Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877
The suggested viewing path of the museum starts on the first floor, which is actually the lowest basement level (four levels are underground). As we entered somewhat darkened room, we were drawn to the lighted displays. Each display contained drawings or artifacts with placards of explanation.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy this floor as much as the others, because there was so much reading. The facts and figures were presented neatly, but I thought it became a bit overwhelming. At first, I read everything, but as I made my way through the room, I started skimming some of the placards.
The second half of the first floor was more interesting, with information about slavery in America. Some of the information still included facts and figures, but it became more interesting when I saw a replica slave cabin. This was followed by influential leaders, one of which was Frederick Douglass.
The next section covered the years leading up to the Civil War, including information about the Underground Railroad. Finally, there was a display of Abraham Lincoln, along with guns and uniforms from the war.
Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968
I really enjoyed the second floor of the museum. The history continued with the struggles of the “free” African Americans. There was a section about the Jim Crow era followed by information about the towns around the country that were established and inhabited by newly freed people. I’ve read some literature about these towns, so I could more easily relate.
An interactive lunch counter and a restored Pullman car explained the problems with segregation. Placards told stories of those who opposed segregation and how their actions were eventually successful.
A large section showed the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. I was surprised to learn that so many leaders besides the few well known ones were involved in speeches and marches. Modern day photos and recordings made this part come alive.
A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond
The third level was smaller than the first two, although I wish it wasn’t. A large room chronicled the violent clashes in 1968. The suggested path then led visitors through highlights of each of the decades starting with the 1970s through the present. The highlights included cultural events – the success of television personality Oprah Winfrey – to historical events – the landfall of hurricane Katrina – to political events – the election of Barack Obama as President.
Since I was alive through the events of all these decades, it was touching to relive them – some even brought tears to my eyes.
We walked back up to Concourse Level where we had started the walk through the historical galleries.
A short ramp brings visitors to the Contemplative Court. The court has a fountain flowing down through the middle of it – the water also flows through the fountain outside the building. The water represents all the tears that have flowed throughout the years – for slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and the civil rights marches. It was very moving.
Culture Galleries, Community Galleries
The Culture and Community Galleries are located above the main entrance hall. We did not have time to see the Community Gallery but did enjoy the Culture Gallery.
The gallery was divided into four basic sections. The largest section was devoted to music. Every genre of music was represented by a popular African American performer or group. Another section highlighted performers on stage and screen. One room had several televisions playing clips of familiar shows.
The third section focused on visual art. Traditional and contemporary works lined the walls. In the middle of the gallery, the fourth section focused on home and building arts – cooking, basket weaving, decorative iron work – with a small section devoted to physical beauty. It was all very interesting.
My family and I visited on the last Friday of August. The months of March through August are considered peak season – September through February is off-peak. Tickets are free, but ticket acquisition is different depending on the season.
In order to visit the museum in the morning during peak season, visitors need a timed pass. A limited number of passes are available online – issued three months in advance on the first Wednesday of the month. Additional passes are released at 6:30 am on the day of entry. Walk-up entry is only available after 1 pm on weekdays. No walk-up entry is allowed on the weekend.
In the off-peak season timed passes are only required on weekends. As in peak season, no walk up entries are allowed on Saturday and Sunday.
I would highly recommend this museum to anyone. For families with small children, choose the areas that you think your children will appreciate the most, as trying to cover everything in one day will be too much. Visitors who plan a few days in the area may want to split the museum over two days. The volume of information might be overwhelming.
We didn’t get to the museum until after 1 pm. I think we stayed around three hours. Within that time we were able to see most of it, although we could have spent more time in a few places. I wouldn’t mind going back sometime to see what I’ve missed.
Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture is an experience I won’t soon forget!