The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), a long-awaited branch of the Smithsonian Institution, finally opened to the public over the past weekend in Washington, D.C.
The museum’s presence marks the government’s institutionalization of the history of the black diaspora living in the United States, and was inaugurated by our country’s first black president, Barack Obama, and the daughter of a former slave, 99-year-old Ruth Bonner.
One of the first visitors to the history museum told the New York Times, “You just have to face the reality [of slavery]. It was brutal. And it should not be sugarcoated.”
“Creating museums for their stories is not about serving special interests. It’s about celebrating the true diversity of the country, showing how people, even people who moved there under the most traumatic conditions, ultimately thrived.”
Another guest said, “What’s depressing is not so much that [lynching by white men] happened, but that it’s still happening.”
Lead architect David Adjaye, a British-Ghanaian designer, told Architectural Digest he hopes that visitors will “see America in a new way” when looking out at the vistas of the National Mall from the museum’s windows and top story balcony.
Pointedly so, as the location which houses the NMAAHC was a spot where African slaves were once sold at auction, Al Jazeera reported.
In an interview with the New York Times, Adjaye described how the NMAAHC filled a missing gap in the National Mall, which is largely dedicated to memorializing the origins of the United States, its government, and its people.
The stories of displaced people and people forced into the U.S. against their will as slaves are an essential part of the national fabric, Adjaye said.
“Creating museums for their stories is not about serving special interests. It’s about celebrating the true diversity of the country, showing how people, even people who moved there under the most traumatic conditions, ultimately thrived,” he explained.
Adjaye described how the NMAAHC is divided into three segments, from an architectural standpoint. There are historical galleries housed in an underground space, galleries focused on migration from the South to urban centers and the beginning of the professional classes, and an uppermost level devoted to contemporary art, pop culture,a and Black Lives Matter — the level which the architect simply views as the “Now.”
Although conceptualized by Civil War veterans back in the early 1900’s, the museum was largely propelled by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who first created legislation to fund the museum 15 years ago.
Lewis said in his speech during the inauguration,
“When I was a little child growing up in rural Alabama, a short walk to the cotton fields, but hundreds of miles from Washington, from the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, my teachers would tell us to cut out of pictures of great African Americans for Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week, now called African American History Month.
I became inspired by the stories of George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and so many others whose life and work would be enshrined in this museum.
As these doors open, it is my hope that each and every person who visits this beautiful museum will walk away deeply inspired, filled with a greater respect for the dignity and the worth of every human being and a stronger commitment to the ideals of justice, equality and true democracy.”
Literally just steps away from the Washington Monument, the bronze-cast, tiered structure of the NMAAHC brings a Yoruban-inspired architectural element to the predominantly white marble National Mall.
This stark contrast, now a lasting part of the National Mall, speaks volumes to the ongoing tensions in race relations today and what privilege may or may not mean to contemporary Americans.