The time spent inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, will be heavy on your soul no matter your origin, but please don’t shy away from visiting. NMAAHC represents the complexity and suffering of blackness in North America and cherishes the achievements of African Americans, who built the nation with their bare hands.
For generations, African natives and, later on, African Americans have been, to borrow a phrase from one of the galleries, “making a way out of no way.” You will witness the path from slavery to the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter, beholding the thriving culture amid racial oppression.
Museum curators tell us there’s no correct way to see the 12 exhibitions comprised among 3,500 objects and 183 videos, but they advise that it’s difficult to accomplish in one visit. Since we know you may not have an entire three-day weekend to dedicate to the museum, we visited it multiple times to create this guide on how best to navigate 600 years of dense, important history.
- Metaphoric architecture
- History galleries: From slavery to the election of America’s first African American president
- Suggested stops in the history galleries in C3, C2, and C1
- The L galleries: African American community and culture
- Planning your visit
- Discussions and events
The 400,000-square-foot bronze-hued building adjacent to the Washington Monument sets the atmosphere for the historical truth that many have long waited to witness. The establishment of the museum right on the National Mall is also emblematic since The Mall is a platform for America’s democratic values of liberty, equality, and justice.
Award-winning architect David Adjaye designed the three-tiered exterior in the form of a corona, inspired by the Yoruban caryatids, West Africa’s crowned wooden statues. The patterns on the aluminum panels portray the 19th-century ironwork of enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans. They also allow for the daylight to shine through and, at night, for the corona to glow from within.
The perimeter of the grand porch on the south (National Mall) entrance is symbolically bedded out with live oaks, the trees of safety, strength, and resilience. For the enslaved, live oaks provided shade and shelter and served as gathering spots for meetings and religious services.
History galleries: From slavery to the election of America’s first African American president
Upon entering the trio of history galleries, you are embarking on the journey of 3.5 million West Africans who endured the savage disregard of their humanity and the journey of their descendants. Note that some of the more brutal photographs in the history galleries have been curated so that visitors can avoid looking at them head-on.
You are directed in front of the heavy doors of a large elevator, which will open to a glass box when about 30 people gather. Some visitors will look behind at the escalators, puzzled about why they are not in use, but the elevator is a well-curated illusion of time travel. From the light and open space of the 21st century, you will descend three levels below ground to the darkness and confinement of the 1400s.
At the end of this section, we note some must-see items in each concourse.
Concourse 3 (C3)
This area tells the story of how, by the 1600s, West Africa’s centers of learning, military prowess, trade, and unity became the settlements of slave barracks. The sounds of musicians and dancers were silenced by “the rattling of chains, groans, and cries.” There’s much to learn in this first gallery about the transatlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in history.
The startling emergence of the high-ceilinged Paradox of Liberty hall allows for a deep breath and the intuitive release of tension. But the view of Thomas Jefferson’s statue in the foreground of a brick wall with the names of his 600 slaves reminds visitors that there’s still a lot of history left until the 13th Amendment of 1865, which proclaimed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime… shall exist within the United States…”
Concourse 2 (C2)
Walk up the ramp to reach a new mournful era in African American history: that of racial segregation (1876-1968) as enforced by the Jim Crow laws. Concourse 2 showcases the dehumanizing forms that the “separate but equal” doctrine took in public facilities, transportation, education, housing, entertainment, healthcare, work, and the military.
The spoken word played an explicit role in the modern civil rights movement, which has a dedicated room in this gallery. In this room, you can pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership of non-violent protests against the unequal treatment of African Americans, activism, and intelligence helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Concourse 1 (C1)
Climb the second ramp to this concourse to encounter the events of a changing America. In 1968, an unprecedented boom of black movements took place, each displayed on bright orange and mirror plaques. While milling about this pop hall, anticipation for the future is gradually restored under jazz and rock and roll sounds.