Museums often are classically styled boxes with little variation whether they house art or animals. Then there are museums whose architecture reflects the mood of the content. A good example of architecture reflecting content is DC’s Holocaust Museum whose cold industrial steel beams provide a chilling setting for what is to come. Another is the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Slavery starts belowground, deep in the earth, and the story advances incrementally as the visitor ascends from one floor to the next. As we approach ground level and the light of day, the atmosphere changes from one of despondency, prejudice and segregation to celebration of the many contributions made by African Americans.
The large open space of the ticket area creates a neutral buffer between the underground and the floors above. The self-guided tour begins in a large elevator with glass walls where you see the date 2008 painted on the wall of the shaft. This elevator is your time machine as the doors close and you descend with the years painted on the shaft rolling back in time until you reach three levels down and the year 1400.
There you learn about slavery across continents. Slavery existed everywhere. The distinction of the institution in the Americas was that it was for life, your descendants, and determined by race. You see the harsh realities of the slave trade, through colonial times, the revolutionary and civil wars and segregation. Our 21st Century discourse is more candid about the past than it has ever been. The beginning of the Declaration of Independence is boldly displayed on a two-story wall with “All men are created equal” and a statue of the author of those words, Thomas Jefferson, standing nobly before it. However, there are 609 bricks stacked behind Jefferson with the names of each of his slaves. His affair with Sally Hemings is no longer a suspicion here. A placard states simply that Hemings bore seven children to Jefferson. Here, you might contemplate the dichotomy of ideals and actions that have always been a part of this country.
Rising level-by-level and century-by-century, you pass under a biplane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen on to pieces of the Greensboro lunch counter where many consider the civil rights movement started. At last you return to ground level and stand before the Oprah Winfrey Theater, the black woman billionaire’s success a hopeful symbol for the future.
The floors above celebrate contributions by African Americans, among other things, in fighting our wars, creating our music, staring in our TV and movies, creating our art, and excelling in our sports. It would be hard to imagine our country without these citizens and the gaping cultural void they would leave.
The museum has been wildly popular. I went on their web site July 5 to secure tickets for 2 PM on October 25. However, a guard told me when we arrived that it was a light day and we likely could get a ticket there for immediate entry. Being a guy who likes to play it safe, I’m glad I had the tickets, but you may try your luck anytime.
The important thing is that you go. It is an excellent portrayal of an important segment of our citizenry, who can readily claim that they built this country.