Earlier this month, the latest addition to the Smithsonian Institution was opened to the public. The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in 2003 and realized a location three years later. On September 24, the building was unveiled in a ceremony led by President Barack Obama.
Many outlets have shared stories of the people who attended the opening. Some were local residents DC or in the nearby suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. Other’s made out of state journeys. But even though thousands of people arrived, not everyone was able to get in. In fact, tickets for the museum are sold out through December of this year, although limited day passes are available.
The Museum, which was founded in 2003, a site for a building was selected three years later, and ground broke in 2012. It’s a seven-story building, with three levels below ground, and four above. The route one takes has been compared to that of Dante’s journey through the afterlife, though in this case, your Virgil takes the form of some 3,000 objects on display (out of over 30,000 in the collection). Visitors first descend into the lowest level, where the cramped and claustrophobic halls are evocative of the hulls of a slave ship. Indeed, these lower floors are full of objects and information on the ghastly middle passage and the condition of slaves in the United States.
The ascent takes you through centuries of African American History, that shows the inherent contradictions between a country that proclaimed “all men are created equal”, yet violated the rights and bodies of black people. But what’s most interesting is how it’s all arranged, a seamless integration of the terrible violence and national triumphs. Says Atlantic staff writer Vann R. Newkirk II:
“The resulting climb up through history is a barrage of information and an assault on the senses, an intentional juxtaposition of promise with sorrow. At one point, after walking past a proud depiction of a black Revolutionary Patriot, viewers encounter a huge multi-story exhibit embossed with the most famous words of the Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal. Standing underneath those words like Damocles under his sword is a statue of the framer Thomas Jefferson. Beside him is a pile of bricks representing the Monticello, with each brick representing one enslaved human that built it.”
The president also made a similar point in his speech, when he asserted: “That African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It’s not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.”
In the upper floors, African American contributions to society— from science to entertainment— are celebrated. However, the museum avoids a rose-tinted teleological view of history. There is no “end”, per se. The takeaway is not one of “Black America has arrived”. Instead, it is “Black Lives Matter”, as the social justice movement is featured prominently, reminding museum-goers that there is still a way to go.
The President’s full remarks have been made available on the official White House website.
The New York Times has published a feature highlighting some of the objects and exhibits in the museum.