OF AFRICAN AMERICAN
HISTORY AND CULTURE
A reflecting pool teeming with calm water welcomes visitors to “The Porch,” the museum’s main entrance on the National Mall, which draws on architectural traditions from Africa and its diaspora, particularly the American South and the Caribbean.
Renowned artists Chakaia Booker and Richard Hunt debut commissioned works in Heritage Hall, the name given to the main lobby of the museum. The hall will also feature an orientation video, information desk and a retail store (Selected items can also be purchased at SmithsonianStore.com).
The Oprah Winfrey Theater
The theater seats 350 people and will be used for daily performances and public programs. Acoustic panels mimic the design of the building’s exterior. Technical improvements, including hydraulic jacks, ensure state-of-the-art acoustics and help insulate the theater from the rest of the museum.
The Shape of the Corona
The three-tiered trapezoid shape of the bronze corona that wraps around the outside of the glass building is inspired by a sculpture from the early 20th-century Yoruban artist Olowe of Ise. The sculpture can be found in the museum’s culture galleries and depicts a woman wearing a similar three-tiered crown.
The Design of the Corona
The intricate metalwork design of the corona’s 3,600 panels pays homage to the unheralded ornamental ironworkers, slaves and freedmen who crafted the signature wrought iron of southern towns like Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana.
Sweet Home Cafeteria
Stations in the Sweet Home Café serve up culinary traditions honoring black heritage from around the country: north, south, west and Creole. Lunch counters lining the walls of the cafeteria recall the restaurant sit-in protests begun in Greensboro, North Carolina, of the Civil Rights Era.
A life-size sculpture records the moment at the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air on the medal podium. Other sculptures in the Sports Gallery honor African-American legends such as Michael Jordan and the Williams sisters.
At the center of the “Musical Crossroads” exhibition, featuring a host of artifacts such as Chuck Berry’s Cadillac and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, an immersive visual presentation beckons. Musical performances on the surrounding screens include artists as varied as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Outkast.
Visitors entering the museum from the building’s secondary entrance will walk across the top of a green roof. Beneath their feet, a warren of galleries extend several floors below the surface and house the museum’s history exhibitions.
An Underground Museum
The water table on the National Mall is a mere 8 feet beneath street level, but the museum’s foundation extends about 90 feet underground. To keep water out, a sophisticated pumping system recycles it for flush toilets, one of many sustainable features of the museum.
Waterfall and Contemplative Court
The glass structure, called the oculus, allows light to enter the contemplative court beneath it. A waterfall effect offers a quiet space for reflection. Visitors can spend time in the contemplative court after touring the emotionally charged history galleries.
Descendants of both the enslaved and the slave owners were present when this slave cabin, built in the 1840s in Edisto Island, South Carolina, was deconstructed for transportation to the museum. Two or three generations would have lived here before the house became a sharecropper’s home in the 1970s.
Visitors can walk through this restored segregated passenger railcar, which ran along the Southern Railway route in the first half of the 20th century. An audio track plays conversations that could have been heard in both “white” and “black” sections of the train.
Reconstruction Freedom Home
Newly freed enslaved people built this gabled house in 1867 in what was then a part of Poolesville, Maryland. Now as landowners, the inhabitants afforded two stories—a symbol of pride for their new status.
The World War II-era Tuskegee airplane hangs high above the museum’s history galleries. The aircraft was used to train the country’s first African-American military pilots, who flew more than 1,500 missions in Europe. The signatures of 45 airmen mark the underside of the plane’s fuselage compartment door.
To design this grand staircase, lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon cut a spiral shape out of paper and stretched it out vertically. There’s a reason people call it the “monumental staircase”: it’s only supported at the top and the bottom.
Slave Ship Ballast
Iron ballast bars were recovered from the sunken Portuguese slave ship São José Paquete de Africa by an international partnership to discover and document the ship’s relics. About 212 enslaved Mozambicans drowned when the ship sank off the coast of Cape Town in 1794. The ballast was used as counterweight to human cargo.
Angola Prison Tower
A 20-foot prison guard tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, erected between the 1930s and 1940s, was built on former plantation land. The institution’s brutal mistreatment of prisoners stands as a modern reminder of the enduring legacy of slavery in the United States.
Wall of Quotes
As visitors wait for the elevator that will take them down to the history galleries, they encounter on the walls a selection of thought-provoking quotes pulled from the Declaration of Independence and the works of James Baldwin, Ida B. Wells and others.
Scenic view of the mall and Washington monument
On the fourth floor is a long window that frames a sweeping view encompassing the White House,Arlington National Cemetery, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. Most visitors will end their visit here, an impressive place to reflect on their experience.
Library and Research Room
The second floor houses an education space where visitors will find archives, a library and a center for African-American media arts.
The museum is seeking to become the first Gold LEED-certified building on the National Mall. Solar cells on the building’s roof produce electricity to heat water for the structure. Other sustainability-driven features include the green roof along Constitution Avenue and the water recycling and filtration system.
Emmett Till’s Casket
In 2004, the remains of Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 for the supposed offense of flirting with a white girl, were reinterred. His family donated the original casket to the museum, where it will be on solemn display in a designated room. A voice recording of Till’s mother tells her son’s story.
Take an Interactive Tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
What to expect when you visit the Smithsonian’s newest museum
The anticipation is palpable, as the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture approaches. When the museum released 28,500 timed-entry passes for the opening weekend, they were gone within an hour.
Museum officials expect to use the free timed-entry passes well into 2017, so potential visitors should plan on scheduling far ahead of time. More information on the passes is available at nmaahc.si.edu.
The museum and its 35,000 treasured artifacts are telling a new story about America. In what will likely be the last new building on the National Mall, the museum represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reintroduce important ideas and themes to an eager public.
As museum director Lonnie Bunch wrote in his essay for Smithsonian:
I think the museum needs to be a place that finds the right tension between moments of pain and stories of resiliency and uplift. There will be moments where visitors could cry as they ponder the pains of the past, but they will also find much of the joy and hope that have been a cornerstone of the African-American experience. Ultimately, I trust that our visitors will draw sustenance, inspiration and a commitment from the lessons of history to make America better. At this time in our country, there is a great need for contextualization and the clarity that comes from understanding one’s history. I hope that the museum can play a small part in helping our nation grapple with its tortured racial past. And maybe even help us find a bit of reconciliation.
These principles guided designer David Adjaye and architect Philip Freelon as they planned this new museum. The soon-to-be iconic three-tiered design of the building was modeled on a sculpture by a Yoruban artist and its intricate exterior brass work honors the unheralded craftsmen of the American South.
This interactive highlights these features, as well as many other aspects of the museum that visitors will encounter in their experience. Important features about the building are highlighted in blue while some of the signature artifacts are highlighted in orange.
To view all four sides of the building, click on the spiraled arrow on the right. To explore the building, roll over and click on the graphic callouts.
As you make your virtual journey through the interactive, and then hopefully see the stunning exhibits and architecture for yourself on the National Mall, experience the building that director Lonnie Bunch says will “Sing for all of us.” — Beth Py-Lieberman