SEPT 20: National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC

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YOU WANT TO DO THIS – Join us in DC on SEPT 20th!… This post is about an extra-special visit to the National African American Museum (NMAAHC) in Washington DC on Thursday, September 20th.  Thanks to the efforts of a very kind, generous and big-hearted MWC’er we are able to arrange a group, pre-opening, tour, (uh, boy-oh-boy, not easily available) starting at 8:30am.  With such an early start it’s presumed that we will need to go the day before – and, hey, why not arrange other activities as well?   But the only catch is:  our tour will be limited to 20.  So, you’re being given notice now but when the sign-up goes up (and all members will be sent a notification) – it will be limited to the first 20 active MWC’ers who sign up.  While there is no charge for admission to the Museum, we are going to collect $50. per person to make a group contribution.

SOMETIMES, I’m a little overwhelmed by the bulls*** Black Americans have had to put up with in their history as Americans.  The “issues” related to Black Americans and what their role is in our society is as old as our country itself.  Didn’t the Founding Fathers struggle with the issue of slavery and how to address it in the country’s founding documents?  Almost a century later, wasn’t the country almost cleaved in two by the still festering issues – economic and social – related to slavery?  And then, a century again later, even after Civil Rights and other powerful legislation, weren’t we still struggling?  And now, today, aren’t we still burdened with racism in many forms – aided and abetted by a totalitarian-leaning, White Supremacist-supporting President?  Will this pain never stop?

The enormity of this issue: race in America, is what makes the National African American Museum of History and Culture so important.   And as we are now so aware of identity politics, now comes an identity museum – and none too soon.  Initial efforts to establish a museum tracing the history of African Americans date to 1915 (no, not kidding) but took up a head of steam in the 1970’s. Yet, it wasn’t until 2003 that a museum devoted to the history of African Americans was established by Congress.  A site was selected in 2006 and “only” ten years later – on September 24, 2016 the National Museum of African American History and Culture was opened – as part of the Smithsonian and in a prominent place on the Mall.

And what a magnificent and meaningful building it is, incorporating design elements which are direct references to Black History and Culture.  Clad in a seemingly delicate, bronze-colored ornamental fretwork (similar to a traditional ironwork craft practiced by Black slaves), it brings light into the space (not all that common in museums) and offers visitors constant site lines reminding you as to just where this new museum is located – physically and symbolically.  The shape of the building – three wide trapezoidal shapes stacked on top of each other – was inspired by the three-tiered crowns seen in Yoruban art from West Africa. Finally, the entrance to the building is redolent of a welcoming porch which references the architectural history of Africa, the American South and the Caribbean.  The architectural team which won the competition to create the Museum was led by the Ghanian-British designer Sir David Adjaye, OBE and architect Philip Freelon.

As the effort to create the Museum was underway so was the wide-ranging curatorial effort to gather artifacts.  Many early critics of the concept of the museum doubted the availability of artifacts related to Black history – when the real issue was that they just hadn’t been collected, yet.  They span from the huge (a 1922 Pullman railroad car used during the Jim Crow era – which the museum was built around), to the deeply personal (a feed sack embroidered by a mother as a gift to her daughter being taken away in slavery), to the truly heart-breaking (slave manacles) to the historically important (Nat Turner’s Bible). 

The Museum is the deepest on the Mall with an excavation of three stories underground.  This was done not only to adhere to zoning requirements but also to create a physical experience.  The chronological Museum progression starts on the very lowest floor in almost darkness and proceeds upward – to light, the present and, one hopes, a better and brighter future.  According to designer Adjaye, “This idea of darkness to light – that’s the basic premise.  It points out some of the crazy things that have gone on in the past and how people have gotten through it.  It’s how the Museum is about that tragedy and triumph of life.”

One can only hope that this long but ultimately successful process is providing a blueprint for the National Women’s History Museum which is still in a nascent stage. It has often been said that the NAAMC was situated on the last available spot on the mall, although it appears that the corresponding spot on the other side of the Washington monument would be a good place for a museum honoring the history of women!    And, although it took about 100 years to come to fruition the National African American Museum of History and Culture is a stunning example.  Congratulations to all who persevered, supported and championed this new and very important contribution to our country’s history – they DID overcome.

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