National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Smithsonian is a network of 20 museums (as of January, 2020), that are run by the U.S. government.  The newest museum on the list opened in 2016, and is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Like most of the Smithsonian museums, it is located in the Nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Since it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, it seemed like a good week to describe this museum.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture was designed by a Ghanaian man named David Adjaye.

Although the Smithsonian museums are free, until recently, visitors to the African American museum needed to obtain free entrance tickets far in advance, due to the Museum’s popularity.  Now, since the Museum is not as new as it used to be, visitors are only required to obtain tickets on the weekends.  I visited the Museum on a weekday in 2019 between Christmas and New Year’s, and although I did not have to obtain an advance ticket, I did have to wait in line for 45 minutes just to get into the building.  Once inside, I had to wait an additional 45 minutes to go see the three exhibits on the lower levels, which provide a chronological display of African American history.  The Museum’s other three floors did not have lines, but because I waited in so many, I did not have a chance to see them.  They focus on the cultural aspects of African American history, such as famous athletes, musicians, and actors.  The second floor also has a library, but visitors can only enter by appointment.

Although the 45-minute line to enter the Museum was boring, I did have the privilege of overhearing a thought-provoking conversation while waiting.  The conversation was between two African American men, one appearing to be middle-aged, and the other possibly in college.  It is based on my memory, so may not be 100% word-for-word.

College-Age Man: Where are we?

Middle-Age Man: Do you mean where are we physically, or where are we going?

College-Age Man: Where are we going now?

Middle-Age Man: This is the African American history museum.

College-Age Man: Oh.  [Pause]  I was going to say a white people joke, but maybe this is not the best time.  [Pause]  It’s not that funny, but I was going to say that for being an African American history museum, there are a lot of white people here. 

Middle-Age Man: That’s not a bad thing.

College-Age Man: I know.

Middle-Age Man: I used to work with the Smithsonian, and we analyzed what kind of visitors came in.  Even for the African art exhibits, more white people visited than black people. [Pause] It’s a good thing that they built this museum.  The Holocaust museum, which is nearby, always has as many visitors as here, or more, and that museum isn’t even about something that happened on our soil.  But the African American museum is about what happened here.  We needed this museum.  I think you’ll like it.

The college-age man’s comments made me analyze my surroundings, and despite his comments about the number of white people in line, the majority were not white.  This then made me come back to what the middle-age man said about how more white visitors tended to visit the Smithsonian museums than black people.  I am not an expert on this topic, but my guess is that this is because museums were not a part of African American culture for a long time, since they were enslaved, historically barred entrance into many cultural institutions, or were underpaid and needed to save their money for more important needs.  Perhaps, many museums are often not as relevant to African Americans (i.e. art museums in the U.S. tended to focus more on European art, and less on other types).  Regardless, I am thankful that, after several decades of trying to make it happen, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was finally created.  I have visited several of the main Smithsonian museums, and the African American one is definitely among the top 3.

This is a timeline of the slave trade in the Americas. Portugal brought the most African slaves to the Americas: 5.8 million people.

I spent several hours at the Museum, and probably only saw a third of it, so make sure you allot plenty of time if you ever visit.  Among the many things you will see are a slave cabin, a segregated train, Nat Turner’s Bible (he led a slave rebellion), a plane used by the Tuskegee Airmen (African American WWII pilots), and Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal.

This is a nineteenth-century slave auction block from Hagerstown, Maryland.

In addition to the 45-minute line to enter the Museum, and the other 45-minute line to enter the main history exhibit, I waited an additional 45-minutes to enter the Emmett Till Memorial.  This line was very confusing, because it wrapped around the segregated train, making me first think that the line was for entering the train.  However, I eventually learned that I was in the line for the Emmett Till Memorial.  The Memorial is important, especially if you do not know about Till, since this is the only place in the Museum that talks about him.  Nevertheless, I am still not sure why the line went so slowly.  It contains Emmet Till’s casket, but why he is no longer in it is a different story for a different blog post.

Sources and Further Reading

“The Building.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/building (accessed January 6 2019).

“Facts about the Smithsonian Institution.” Smithsonian. https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/facts-about-smithsonian-institution (accessed January 6 2019).

“Museum Maps.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/maps (accessed January 6 2019).

“The Building.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/building (accessed January 6 2019).

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