“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or… some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
These are powerful words, spoken by Barak Obama in his final speech as US President in January 2017. They echoed loudly when delivered in that speech, which marked one of the most significant regime changes in the political history of America, but they echo louder still etched into the wall of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington DC. This is where I saw them, in the final display of the museum’s history galleries, opposite a case filled with objects celebrating the achievements of America’s first president of African descent. In a museum that has been in the making for over one hundred years, these words are an affirmation of the achievement that the NMAAHC is.
The museum opened in September 2016, after being established by an Act of Congress in 2003. It stands on Washington’s National Mall as the nineteenth Smithsonian institution. It is such a phenomenon that visitors must secure a time-slot ticket at least three months in advance. As of the end of June this year, the museum has had over 1.2 million visitors since it opened. This is an extraordinary figure, one which directly speaks to the level of demand for the museum. Inside, there was a great mix of audiences, from families to individuals, children to elderly, individuals and groups, black and white. All the display spaces were busy, and the museum was buzzing with people discussing, questioning and considering all that they were seeing. Banished was the traditional view of the museum as a silent, authoritarian educator, the NMAAHC has people at its very core.
From the outside, the museum is visually striking. It stands out from the rest of the Smithsonian museums along the Mall. Every aspect of it has been carefully thought out, from the three-tiers representing a traditional Yoruban Caryatid (wooden column), to the bronze panels taking inspiration from ornate ironwork across plantations in the American South, much of which was created by enslaved Africans. According to the NMAAHC’s website, ‘the building form and materials are intended to express strength, faith, hope and resilience,’ all themes which run throughout the displays inside.
The displays are in two parts. First are the history galleries, designed to showcase the milestones in African American history. These are cleverly designed so that visitors enter via a descent in a lift which takes them back in time to the sixteenth century, and the beginning of a European transatlantic slave trade. The exhibition begins with interpretation which illustrates different aspects of African culture, showcasing the advancement of the civilisation there in the 1500s and dispelling the common misconception that, until the arrival of Europeans, Africa was an undeveloped, barren landscape. From there, the exhibition tackles the horrors of enslavement and the Middle Passage, always sensitively but honestly. Using historical sources, such as published narratives of the enslaved and archaeological remains from plantation digs, the curators have enabled the enslaved people to speak to the visitors, telling their own stories first hand. Simultaneously the exhibition also charts the development of America as a nation; the first colonisation by Europeans, the war for independence and the growth of infrastructure and economy. In doing this, the system of slavery is firmly cemented in the national history of America.
This message is extremely clear through the rest of the history galleries, which move from enslavement and plantation life, to abolition and emancipation, then reconstruction and civil rights. There are discussions of the legacies of slavery in various elements of American life, including popular culture, industry and of course, politics. The range of objects on display is outstanding- particularly given that the NMAAHC built its collection from scratch. By asking for donations, as they did, from people across America and the world, the exhibitions are able to show individual, personal stories as well as the big national narratives. These objects also form part of a constant reflection on legacies of the slave trade, right up to the present day. In this, the museum does not shy away from more difficult instances, such as the period of Jim Crow laws and the violence of the Black Panther movement, nor does it only highlight the negative- there are some really interesting cases discussing the rise of black academia, and the black museum movement in the 1960s, alongside displays on evolving African culture in terms of music, food and fashion.
The other half of the museum is taken up with the community galleries which aim to illustrate the ongoing achievements of African American people, in a variety of fields. From science, design and music, to military exploits, sport and television, these galleries include something for everyone. Again they are very clearly centred on people, and individual stories drive the overall thematic narrative of the exhibition. There are more fascinating objects, some of which have a ‘celebrity’ appeal with Michael Jordan’s 1996 NBA finals jersey, and one of Jimi Hendrix’s vests. These galleries were equally as busy as the history galleries, with much more engagement focussing on life today and the experience of the visitor. Panels spoke directly to the visitor, requesting them to think about their own experiences and asking for their responses to exhibits. There were lots of opportunities to explore stories further with numerous interactives and activity stations. This side of the museum will also house the ‘Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Centre,’ where visitors will be able to look at digitised archive material with expert guidance to explore their own family tree.
Overall, visiting the NMAAHC was an amazing, eye-opening experience. As someone who spends quite a lot of time in museums, the exhibitions were innovative and exciting. The sheer amount of objects on display and themes discussed throughout the panels and interactives are quite overwhelming, and I think that a repeat visit is essential just to really take it all in. The most admirable quality of the museum is that while in name it is an institution designed to address African American history and culture, in reality this is a museum which charts the national history of America as a whole. The displays have been very carefully considered in every aspect, to provide a balanced view of both the history and the legacies of slavery and its aftermath. All visitors are invited to contribute their own stories and comments to each set of exhibitions. As its director, Dr Lonnie Bunch stated prior to the museum opening, ‘this Museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s Story and this museum is for all Americans.’ And he was absolutely right. Institutions around the world should take note of the NMAACH as an example of how to bring people together to learn and to discuss and to celebrate histories that have traditionally been undervalued and neglected due to their perceived challenging nature, but are crucial elements of a national narrative.