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Unfinished journey

Museum traces path toward justice and freedom for African Americans

susan | 11/16/2017, 6 a.m.
The largest institution dedicated to African American history and culture, the National Museum of African American History and Culture starts ...
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Photo by Susan Saccoccia

As the elevator descends from the street-level concourse of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a timeline on the wall traces each passing floor and era: 1968 and beyond; 1876–1968; and finally, the third level, where the museum’s exhibition begins, 1400–1877.

Golliwogg figures at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Golliwogg figures at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Contemplative Court.

The Contemplative Court.

On the Web

For more information about the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, visit: https://nmaahc.si.edu/

The largest institution dedicated to African American history and culture, the museum starts its story in the 1400s, when African peoples took part in transatlantic trade with countries on other continents. Displays and wall texts follow the money, and the gradual growth of the fiction that Africans were not equals and could themselves be traded as commodities.

Artifacts on view trace the growing economic dependence on slavery, first in Europe and then in its New World colonies, as cotton became king — and how society and culture reinforced the fiction of inequality. Small but telling objects on display include children’s books, toys and household items showing black people as servants, mammies, laborers, minstrels, blackface golliwog dolls and other caricatures.

Exhibits follow this story through the Revolutionary War; the Civil War; the post-emancipation decades of segregation known as the Jim Crow era; the Great Migration, the epic passage north for a livelihood and better life; the turbulent 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement gained traction; and onward to the present day.

Since its inauguration by President Barack Obama on Sept. 24, 2016, the museum has drawn more than 2.5 million visitors and become the most coveted ticket in town. The building closest to the Washington Monument, the museum makes the majesty of blackness visible to all who enter the National Mall, the symbolic epicenter of the city.

Architect David Adjaye, born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, was lead designer of the building and its distinctive exterior — a three-tiered bronze metal corona of intricate latticework inspired by the three-tiered crowns of Yoruban art in West Africa and the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans.

Inside, compelling displays on five levels showcase 3,000 artifacts from the museum’s permanent collection of nearly 40,000 objects. Some objects take an intimate turn and tell personal stories. On view are the dress that seamstress Rosa Parks was sewing the day she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and

a photographic portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), along with her hymnal and a linen-and-silk shawl given to her by Queen Victoria.

A quietly poignant treasure from the mid 1800s is a burlap feed sack, the parting gift from Rose, a slave, to her 9-year-old daughter, Ashley, who was being sold away by the South Carolina planter who owned them. In 1921, Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth Jones Middleton, embroidered the sack with a description of its original contents: “a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair” and “filled with my Love always.”

Connected by sloped ramps, the three below-ground floors ascend through the decades and display life-size installations as well as artifacts. On the second level, a large hall with high gray walls, exhibits include a freed slave’s house, a segregated rail car, an interactive lunch counter exhibit, a guardhouse from Angola Prison, and the plane of a Tuskegee Airman.