The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016. It continues to be one of the most popular and visited Smithsonian Museums in Washington. After visiting the National Museum of American History, honestly the bar was set quite low for what to expect. I will definitely write about that later. As opposed to some of the other Smithsonians, this museum felt innovative and up-to-date. Even before walking into any exhibition you could already start to see this through the architecture of the building itself.
I felt very fortunate to visit this museum with two friends from my museum studies course. We tried our very best to see as much of the museum as possible. It is an absolutely massive museum with three large floors of history and four floors displaying culture. I don’t think it would be possible to see everything in one day. This isn’t a criticism because being a National museum means, in my opinion, getting as much information out there for all to read/see. It is more beneficial to commit to either seeing a different section every time or walk through at a pace stopping to read what catches your eye. I had a lot of trouble deciding what to focus on for my review. There are just so many important elements and stories that have gone into the creation of this museum. Every floor is overflowing with significant events, important messages, and opportunities to reflect on the past and the pain and suffering that continues to scar this country. It is no easy feat to nicely wrap this up in a blog post.
Instead, I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done before and let the pictures I took guide the post. In the past I have selected top images or objects, but, this will be slightly different. I took only a few photographs during my visit as I was more focused on trying to see a little bit of everything and work my way through the crowds. These photographs should give some idea of what’s held in the museum and the wide variety of stories on display.
The first photograph is of a large sugar pot once used to boil down sugar cane. It is resting on a mass of sugar. This display introduced the section on the Transatlantic Slave Trade by showing one of the most sought after and life-destroying commodities of the era. The thematic panel printed on the glass was near impossible to read, but, tells the story of how sugar was more valuable than gold and responsible for the enslavement of so many people on plantations.
After walking through and seeing remains of a slave ship, you come face-to-face with this image. It shows how slaves were positioned on a ship. It is from a text called “Observations Upon Negro Slavery” by Charles Crawford. Images such as these were used by abolitionists to argue the inhumane treatment of slaves.
The objects pictured above include belt buckles, fragments of bottle, and an oar. They were all discovered during archaeological digs in Louisiana. For each geographical area of America where there was slavery the exhibition was organised as follows: section covering what slavery was used for in that specific location, objects, and evidence of rebellion. In the section photographed above there was information on how Africans and Native Americans worked together to hunt and trade, eventually developing their own economy.
The paradox of liberty statue highlighted how the American Constitution called for equality, yet did not deliver on this promise.
This wedding ring was used to marry over 400 enslaved African Americans in South Carolina. Although marriage was illegal, this did not stop many from showing their commitment to each other in a formal ceremony. It caught my attention as it is such a simple object that holds such a rich history. A small token of love welcomed in the exhibition.
As you can see though, some of the labels were designed so that unless you stood directly in front, they looked blurry. Considering most had to be read from an angle, it was quite bad on the eyes.
The second floor focused on the journey to Civil Rights. This map geographically showed the location of boycotts and sit ins. It was great to see this information visually represented.
One of the largest objects on display is a segregated train cart from 1923. It physically shows the inequality and segregation faced by so many.
In the section on Civil Rights there is an interactive lunch counter. You can select events such as boycotts and protests and answer questions about what you may have done in that situation. It was an effective integration of digital technology that made people really think about what they had just seen on display.
I skipped a whole floor of history and my next photograph was from the cultural display on visual art. This work was stunning. Created by Whitfield Lovell, it combines charcoal portraits with playing cards to represent the rise of African Americans out of slavery. The cards were found objects Lovell decided to add.
My final photograph was of a huge touch screen table found in an exhibition on place. You could slide different photographs from the centre to your section of screen and explore them in more detail. Each photograph was of a place that contains some memory of the past. A particularly harrowing image was of an all whites swimming pool that told the story of how African American children were drowning in lakes as they could not access the pools with life guards. There were pools they could go to, but, lines were so long many opted for the lake.
What I have covered doesn’t even begin to reveal what is on display. It is just a tiny snapshot that will hopefully provide an idea of the displays and stories. If you have the chance, definitely visit and experience this history for yourself.