“This day has been a long time coming,” Barack Obama said last February at the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The museum, first proposed by black Civil War veterans, was finally approved a decade ago, and construction is now underway.
Today, the museum’s future site is an enormous fenced hole in the ground at the corner of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue on the National Mall’s northwest corner. But visitors are already stopping by the new welcome center that opened in an on-site trailer over the holidays in December.
“The Welcome Center ties in with Lonnie Bunch’s vision that the museum is open before we have a building,” says Esther Washington, Smithsonian’s director of education. This vision hopes to use modern technology to extend the museum’s reach beyond Washington. In 2007, the museum launched a virtual “Museum on the Web,” and over the past five years, it has opened exhibits in the International Center of Photography in New York City and at the American History Museum.
Panels, a plasma screen and a miniature model of the Mall explain how the idea for the museum came to fruition, kiosks quiz visitors on African American culture and an information desk staffed by volunteers provides the latest updates on the museum’s progress. “People interested in African American history, and interested in American history through an African American lens can see the collection, they can see the public programs we’re doing,” says Washington.
But plasma screens and panels have nothing over the center’s most popular attraction—watching the construction. A row of large windows overlooking the big hole is the new must-see in Washington D.C., particularly for kids.
“Visitors can see the real work that we have done so far,” says Washington. And for a city frequently chastised for government gridlock, a place to go to see progress and industry can be a big draw.
The Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian’s 19th museum, opens in 2015. The Welcome Center currently runs on a limited schedule, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.