A Visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
By Eleanor Berman
If you are lucky enough to snag a ticket to the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, don’t make any other plans for the day. The hottest destination in Washington, DC ever since it opened in September 2016, this exhaustive, exhilarating blend of history and entertainment is an almost overwhelming first-time experience that can easily take an entire day.
Located on a five-acre site between the Washington Monument and the Mall, the multi-million dollar museum is unique from first sight. The massive five-story, three-tiered glass building by Ghanian-born architect David Adjaye is screened by bronze-colored open mesh ironwork, a design was inspired by ironwork once created by slaves. Inside, the brilliantly conceived galleries tell the story of American history from a different slant, the African American experience as it has influenced almost every facet of the development of America.
Visitors are first directed underground to three floors of history, beginning with the slave trade in Africa. Theaters on the landings between tiers liven the telling. Some of this sad story is familiar but it is told in a fresh way and livened with videos, photos, personal stories and artifacts like an actual reconstructed slave cabin. The first traders came for gold, salt, and spices until they found that human cargo was more profitable. Along with the hardships and cruelty of the greatest migration in world history, we are reminded of the contributions of these enslaved workers who almost literally built the economy of the New World. Their labor created the sugar plantations, cotton, rice, and tobacco fields that fueled the economy of a new nation and built many of the structures we know today, including the White House. Though not allowed to learn to read or write, many became skilled artisans. By 1860, four million American slaves had produced more than 60 percent of the nation’s wealth, without credit or compensation.
Their struggles to hold on to their culture while enslaved, the fight for freedom and the injustices of the reconstruction era are brought to life, along with the later battles for equal rights that continue to today, and the charismatic leaders of the struggle, past and present.
By now it is definitely time for a break. The Sweet Heaven Café beckons with choices of tasty Southern and Creole favorites, fried chicken to gumbo to Gullah Style Hoppin’ John.
The upstairs fourth-floor Cultural Expressions galleries are the dessert, extolling African American artists and their contributions to stage, music, film, TV and art and also telling of their fight to be heard. Leading off the dizzying displays in a central gallery are separate exhibits, each one a mini-museum in itself.
Musical Crossroads offers performances by African American greats from folk, blues, gospel country and jazz to R&B and soul to hip hop and rap. Exhibits include Chuck Berry’s bright red Cadillac Eldorado and the gorgeous costumes worn by everyone from James Brown to Michael Jackson to Marian Anderson. Racks of album covers from greats like Duke Ellington bring back memories and an interactive table plays musical selections.
It would be easy to spend the whole afternoon with music, but Taking the Stage beckons with mesmerizing videos of memorable performances on stage and screen. Changing the Channels tells of the changing presentation of African Americans, including the pioneers who broke down barriers like Harry Belafonte and TV shows like Good Times. We are reminded of trailblazers in dance from Alvin Ailey to Misty Copeland. Tear yourself away and another whole gallery of paintings and visual arts awaits.
Then the third floor Community Galleries demand attention. Sports: Leveling the Playing Field is another show-stopper, especially the films and the Michael Jordan Hall of Game Changers from Jesse Owens to the Williams sisters. Making A Way Out of No Way tells of the fight of an oppressed people to find a place in society through faith, education, enterprise, and the press. The African American Military Experience is yet another dramatic story.
Children’s activities are on the second floor and off the soaring lobby, the Oprah Winfrey Theater has changing offerings. Ms. Winfrey donated $80 million to the museum.
How to do justice to all of this in one visit? There is no way. The only answer is to come back again. And again.
Admission to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is free but only by timed tickets, which are released online on the first Wednesday of each month for dates 3 months in advance. Six passes are allowed per order. Same-day passes are offered online when available, from 6:30 a.m. until they run out. A limited number of walk-up passes are given out on weekdays only, starting at 1 p.m.
Eleanor Berman, a New York freelance writer and award-winning author of a dozen travel guides, has covered 82 countries and all 7 continents. She has written for many national publications, including Travel & Leisure, Ladies’ Home Journal, Diversion, Robb Report, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Denver Post, Miami Herald, and the New York Daily News. Among her guide book awards are a Lowell Thomas award for Traveling Solo, Thomas Cook Book of the Year for Eyewitness Guide to New York, and Independent Publishers IPPY award, best guide of the year, for New York Neighborhoods.