By: Malena Esposito
Established in 1849, the Smithsonian Institution is home to nineteen museums and nine research compounds, making it the largest repository in the world. On September 24th, 2016, the nineteenth museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened to the public.
The first idea of an African-American museum of history and culture was proposed in 1915 by a group of African-American Civil War veterans. A year later, the House of Representatives passed Bill 8721, ordering “secure plans and designs for a monument or memorial to the memory of the Negro soldiers and sailors who fought in the wars of our country.” In 1929, Congress approved building a memorial to celebrate the “Negro’s contributions to the achievements of America.” However, due to the Great Depression, funding was unsuccessful. Over fifty years later, Congress ratified the National Afro-American Museum and Culture Center in Wilberforce, Ohio in 1981. The museum was funded privately and opened in 1987. The concept of a museum celebrating African-Americans was brought up once again in 1991, but was ineffective due to disagreements about the location and funding of the museum. Nevertheless, things were looking up when Congress passed the National African American History and Culture Act in 2003. This allowed the addition to be part of the Smithsonian Institution. Three years later, it was decided that this museum would be located on the last remaining site of the National Mall.
The 400,000-square-foot building lies on a five-acre site near the Washington Monument. Construction funds totaled almost $550 million dollars, funded both privately through the government and through donations. The museum’s exterior is a three-tiered design made out of 3,600 bronze cast-aluminum panels, said to resemble a traditional Yoruban crown. Nearly 40,000 artifacts have been collected for display.
The NMAAHC was designed in chronological order. starting with the Transatlantic slave trade on the lowest level and ending the experience with the Obama Presidency on the top level. Much of the museum is subterraneous, with three stories above ground and five stories below ground. Visitors begin by taking a ramp or elevator seventy feet underground.
Located on Concourse 3, the first exhibit, “Slavery and Freedom”, begins with the Transatlantic Slave Trade and ends with the Emancipation Proclamation. Artifacts such as Harriet Tubman’s book of hymns and Nat Turner’s bible can be seen at this exhibit. Proceeding to Concourse 2, the “Era of Segregation” exhibit takes visitors through Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, showcasing items such as a dress made and worn by Rosa Parks and a segregated Southern Railway train car. The third exhibit, “A Changing America”, displays what African-Americans have brought to the United States, covering events from the death of Martin Luther King Jr. to Obama’s second election. The remaining exhibits are located above ground level at the “Community Galleries”. The “Power of Place” exhibit uses locations like Chicago, Illinois, the Bronx, New York, and Tulsa, Oklahoma to demonstrate the impact of region and setting. “Making a Way out of No Way” shows how African-Americans created opportunities in a world where they were denied religion, education, and business. The next exhibit, “Military History”, is divided into three sections: “A Struggle for Freedom”, which focuses on the War of 1812, the American Revolution and the Civil War; “Segregated Military”, revolving around World War I and II, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War; and “Stirrings of Change to a Colorblind Military, addressing the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as present-day terrorism. Artifacts such as a 1944 training aircraft used by Tuskegee Airmen and Civil War badges are displayed. Visitors learn about what African-Americans have contributed to sports in the “Leveling the Playing Field” exhibit located on the third floor. “The Musical Crossroads”, “Cultural Expressions, Taking the Stage”, and “Visual Arts” exhibits all show the important role African-Americans have played through music, food, style, theater and art. The last exhibit, “A Century in the Making”, displays the obstacles that been overcome to make this museum dream a standing reality.
President Barack Obama gave a speech at the Grand Opening of the NMAAHC on Saturday, September 24th. He believes “this national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. By knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are American; that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It is central to the American story.” President Obama added that “we’re not a burden on America or a stain on America or an object of shame and pity for America.” He also mentioned recent events, sharing that this museum “can help a white visitor understand the pain and anger of demonstrations in places like Ferguson and Charlotte.” Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, former U.S. President George w. Bush and First Lady Michelle Obama also made appearances at the grand opening.