The African American experience in the United States is challenging and complex, and the richness and diversity of that experience will be on display at a new museum in Washington, D.C., opening this week.
Dubbed the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), the museum debuts on Wednesday, and it will include 12 galleries containing more than 3,000 images and artifacts, as well as interactive exhibits that incorporate oral histories. Located on the National Mall next to the Washington Monument, it will be part of the Smithsonian family, a remarkable collection itself that now includes 19 museums overall.
NMAAHC Founding Director Lonnie Bunch has said the goal of the museum is to take visitors through African American history from slavery to the present. On a recent media day, Bunch added that some of the 400,000-square-foot facility has been set up to emphasize “hidden history,” leveraging oral histories to spotlight those who played major roles in the Civil Rights Movement but never received widespread recognition for their efforts.
Highlights of the museum are indisputable. One particular exhibit, an early 1900s Southern Railway car, gives visitors a sense of how separate and unequal life was for African Americans during segregation. Another features a slave cabin from the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island which was dismantled and painstakingly reconstructed piece by piece inside the new museum (that process was detailed expertly in this recent article from The Atlantic).
There’s a reproduction of the set of Oprah Winfrey’s television show, a room with pieces of an actual slave ship that wrecked off the coast of South Africa, and an airplane used by Tuskegee Airmen. The NMAAHC also has a huge section that focuses on African American musicians, and another section that pays tribute to African American sports heroes.
While its permanent home was being built, the NMAAHC spent the last two years temporarily housed on the second floor of the National Museum of American History. Even the new $540-million building itself is a sight to behold; the facility was designed to look like a crown, and the windows were strategically placed to frame views of other iconic buildings around the city. According to a recent Associated Press article, the bronze exterior of the building is a lattice based on historic ironwork created by African American slaves in the South. The space also features a resting room, called the Contemplative Court, a relatively open room off the history galleries with glass and copper walls, and a central, cascading waterfall.
Fittingly, the museum’s restaurant is overseen by consulting chef Carla Hall, a former Top Chef contestant and one of the most famous African American chefs of the modern era. The Sweet Home Café will have four stations serving food from four regions: the agricultural South, the Creole coast, the Northern states, and the Western range.
As with all Smithsonian institutions, admission to the NMAAHC is free. Timed passes, which give visitors specific windows through which they can enter without standing in a queue, will soon be available to minimize wait times.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com