The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened in fall of 2016 to much fanfare. As the latest Smithsonian Museum, the organization put all of its considerable resources into its development. We think its the most well organized museum on the Mall, and currently the hardest one to see.
The overwhelming popularity of the NMAAHC led the Smithsonian to give out timed entry passes for the September 2016 opening. The passes went so quickly that they expanded them out a few months. Then, those flew off the proverbial shelves too, leading to the African American Museum being the hottest ticket in D.C. If you visit the museum’s website you can see the next release date for tickets. They usually are released about 4 months in advance and are gone within hours.
The passes are free, just like admission to the museum (and all Smithsonian museums), but you’re not getting in without one. Luckily, the museum has changed their same-day policies. The previous "wait in line forever in hopes that someone had extra tickets" policy was...not great. Now, if you don't manage to snag a ticket months in advance, you can check the NMAAHC website for same-day tickets beginning at 6:30am. The early bird gets the ticket--our experience is that the small amount of same-day tickets are gone within the hour, sometimes even quicker. Once you get in the ticketed patron line everything moves as usual: ticket scan, security, entrance.
As you approach the NMAAHC, you will obviously notice that it is not the typical granite and marble structure that you see on some of its neighbors. The building was designed by the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, David Adjaye, to evoke the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa.
The exterior lattice “pays homage to the intricate ironwork that was crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere.” We, personally, do not love the exterior of the building. From the inside, however, it is fabulous.
The central shaft overlaid by a corona is a classical Greco-Roman form of architecture. What it means for this museum is that they can place all of the exhibits in the center, leaving the walkways airy and open. There are also strategic breaks in the exterior lattice that allow great views of the National Mall and surrounding areas.
With this museum, what you see isn’t all that you get. It actually descends three stories into the ground to tell the full history of African American strife, strength, and resilience from slavery through the present. To enter the galleries you board a large elevator that passes scrolling dates, taking you back in time several hundred years to when slavery first began in Africa.
Before we give an overview of the galleries, let us point out that this should be your first stop. We have done this as soon as we've entered and was one of about 15 in the elevator. If you wait until later in the day the line for the elevator will be several hundred people long and you will spend up to an hour just waiting for it.
The History Galleries begin like any museum, with display cases telling the story of how and why slavery came to be and how slaves ended up where they did. After you get through one or two rooms, you begin to see what really sets the NMAAHC apart–powerful, multimedia exhibits that overwhelm you with structures, video, sound, and stories. By the time we got into the room with the pieces of a slave ship we knew we were in for an awesome experience.
As you get to the period where anti-slavery sentiment builds, the room suddenly opens up into a massive, multi-level showroom featuring statues, full-sized slave cabins, a train car, and a biplane overhead. The statues you can’t help but encounter highlight one of the most respectable traits of the NMAAHC: it’s willingness to tell the truth. It tells both the good and bad stories on all sides. In this case, the story involves Thomas Jefferson. Behind him are statues of those that fought him the hardest about slavery; and the pile of bricks between them represent all the slaves owned by Jefferson.
As you move into the post-slavery America, it doesn’t get any easier. The museum walks you by linear displays dealing with violence, segregation, and stereotyping–but also the good people that helped fight against those things. You end this section with a fantastic representation of the Greensboro Lunch Counter protest, where the actual counter is an interactive touchscreen allowing you to look at other such protests.
The last section of the History Galleries is a smaller area dealing with the past few decades, from hip-hop to Oprah to President Obama.
It's come up a few times already, but this is the most overtly interactive museums the Smithsonian has done. The second floor, in fact, is full of exploratory exhibits that are all interactive. There are tables that let you look up African American family history, a wall that lets you explore cultural milestones, and even a car with an interactive windscreen. The highlight, at least for TouringPlans staffers, was the step dancing exhibit that allows you to join in. We didn’t get a chance to try it, but just watching others dancing along was fun.
Moving up to the third floor brings you to the Community Galleries. Displays here cover a wide range from military service, activism, achievements in various careers, and noted entrepreneurs.
If you are an avid sports fan, the highlight on this floor will no doubt be the Sports: Leveling the Playing Field exhibit. Not only do they expertly tell the stories of the athletes, but the area is loaded with memorabilia. You begin with the Olympics and move into a display telling the stories of the first (or most notable) African American athlete in just about every sport. Branching off of that hall are separate rooms dedicated to baseball, football, basketball, and boxing. It is a nice mix of triumph over adversity and a celebration of some of the greatest athletes of all time.
The top floor is dedicated to culture, an area of African American life–like sports–that everyone is familiar with. Walking into the gallery you enter a circular room with small exhibits ringing the outside and a massive set of video screens above your head. The rooms off of the circle are dedicated to art, acting, and music.
Like the sports gallery on the floor below, the acting and music sections are immediate draws. Both are celebrations of African Americans in culture with more memorabilia than you can comprehend all at once. From clips of TV and movies to Axel Foley’s jacket to Halle Berry’s Academy Award, the acting area brings nonstop memories.
The star that this floor builds to, however, is the music room. Entering smack into Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac El Dorado sets the tone nicely. That tone is carried through with an astounding collection–mostly supplied by the artists–accompanied by more video and music being piped from seemingly everywhere.
The anchor on the far side is the Mothership used by George Clinton’s P-Funk. Seemingly every musical style gets its own small area and you will be hard pressed not to smile in this section.
We are going to try not to get preachy, but it’s hard not to see the profound nature of the story this museum tells. This isn't a museum that is meant to call to everyone...to its great success. It allows visitors to learn about a culture that has been so intertwined, yet so separate from the rest of America. The museum is a beautifully constructed collection that will run you through a gamut of emotions. It is a remarkable achievement.
On the lower level of the building (near the entrance elevator to the History Galleries) sits the Sweet Home Cafe, a large eating area specializing in southern food, soul food, and just generally good food. The menu was designed by Executive Chef Jerome Grant–the man behind the very good food court at the National Museum of the American Indian–and consulting Chef Carla Hall of Top Chef and The Chew fame.
Much to our boss Len Testa’s dismay, we haven't yet tried everything on the menu. What we have tried has very good and a much higher quality than you find at any other National Mall museum (excepting the aforementioned American Indian cafe). With the Sweet Home Cafe a success, that brings the total of Mall lunch spots we recommend all the way up to 2.