Aspen Times Road Trip Report: National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Like all Smithsonian properties, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is free. But its enormous popularity has made getting in a challenge. It’s doable, however, with advance planning and flexibility. Here are options if you’re taking a trip to Washington, D.C.:
* Obtain a Timed Entry Pass. They’re released online on the first Wednesday of every month. Go online at 4:30 a.m. Mountain Time when they’re released and sign up for the day you want.
* Same-Day Online Passes. These are released daily at 6:30 a.m. Eastern Time and run out quickly.
* Walkups. These are available only on weekdays and only at the museum in-person, starting at 1 p.m. This is a great last-minute option if you get to D.C. and still haven’t gotten passes.
More info: nmaahc.si.edu
It’s been little more than a year since the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It’s remained one of the toughest tickets in the capital since then and more than 2.5 million visitors have made their way through the Smithsonian’s landmark five-story, 400,000-square-foot building beside the Washington Monument.
I finally made my way to Washington recently to visit the museum that some have taken to calling the “Blacksonian.”
The past tumultuous year — with the battles over Confederate monuments, the rise of white supremacist groups and the violence in Charlottesville — has underscored the vital importance of understanding and honoring African American history. The museum effectively makes the case that the African American story is the American story, that one cannot grasp the history of America without grappling with the country’s black culture and history.
“There’s a lot of debate in museum circles about — well, about everything — but one of the things is, ‘Is it actually good to have separate museums for different parts of the nation’s demographic? Or should we view everything as American and try to develop a large melting pot?’” David Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, explained at the Aspen Ideas Festival in the summer of 2016, a few months before the museum’s opening would become a national celebration.
The museum’s answer to Skorton’s question is to do both. It captures the black experience and celebrates difference while also demonstrating black history’s inextricability from American history.
“I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘black art,’” reads a quote from painter Charles Alston outside the top floor’s art gallery, “though there’s certainly been a black experience. I’ve lived it. But it’s also an American experience.”
The gallery hosts an outstanding exhibition, “Visual Art and the American Experience,” which rejects notions of a distinctly black visual art tradition and collects work by African American artists going back to painter Joshua Johnson’s portraits in 18th-century Baltimore, up to recent work by Floyd Newsum, Lorna Simpson and Barkley Hendricks.
But the museum is meant to be experienced from the bottom up. An elevator takes groups of three dozen at a time down to the basement, where the “history galleries” begin. These rooms progress from somber, low-lit rooms and move upward, through ramps, over three levels, covering the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 1500s to the election of Barack Obama.
The artifacts in these galleries give our long-ago past a tactile contemporary power; they make mythical historical figures more human. They confront us with the horrors of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow in ways that no history book can.
We see slave auction blocks and whips. We can read the tiny print in Nat Turner’s bible, see Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal, walk through a segregated Southern Railway car. In the most talked about exhibit in the museum — and certainly its most chilling — you can view the casket that held young Emmett Till after his murder and read about his mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral.
A statue of Colorado pioneer and former slave Clara Brown sits beside a reconstructed slave cabin from South Carolina.
While depicting some of the horrific practices of slaveholders, the history galleries also celebrate the skills of slaves. With artifacts, it explains the use of stereotypes and minstrelsy, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most powerful sections of the history galleries is “The Paradox of Liberty,” an exhibit on the founding fathers and slavery. Here, in a museum situated just across the National Mall from the Jefferson Memorial, is a statue of Thomas Jefferson beside bricks naming his slaves, a pair of shackles and a frank bit of text on a plaque explaining that Jefferson enslaved and owned some of his own children.
As you near the top of the history galleries, natural light begins to pour in from the slatted sides of the museum. Things are brightening. Here are exhibits on Public Enemy, Jesse Jackson; here is Oprah Winfrey’s couch and Michelle Obama’s inaugural dress. And by the time you reach the museum’s top floors — which cover black figures in arts and culture, the military, business, sports and industry — you are part of a dazzling celebration.
As I made my way through the section on music, patrons literally broke out in dance as Kool and the Gang played over the stereo.
Here you can see Run DMC’s Adidas and Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, Charley Pride’s denim suit, Little Richard’s sequined jacket and MC Hammer’s signature pants. George Clinton’s wig and robe and the Parliament Funkadelic’s mothership (a surprisingly small stage prop) are here. So are costumes worn by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Lead Belly’s guitar.
The upper galleries celebrate sports heroes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and the Williams sisters, writers like James Baldwin and August Wilson, alongside lesser-known historical figures like Nashville Banner reporter Robert Churchwell, the trailblazer in newspapers known as “the Jackie Robinson of journalism” and exhibits on cultural phenomena like “daps.”
Seeing this museum is a full-day affair. I wouldn’t recommend trying to squeeze it in along with other museums or sightseeing in a single day. I spent seven hours in there — pushing my (mostly sleeping) infant daughter in a stroller — which was just enough time to make it through all five floors and take a lunch break.
Definitely do make time for a lunch break. The excellent Sweet Home Café serves delectable food by Chef Jerome Grant, broken up into four stations of regional cuisine: The Western Range includes dishes from west of the Mississippi that developed after African Americans moved west following the Civil War, for instance, and The Creole Coast boasts gumbo, shrimp and grits, po’boys, red beans and candied yams.
Punctuated with a massive mural of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins on one wall, the restaurant’s cafeteria-style setup encourages socializing with fellow museumgoers in a way the rest of the institution cannot. Here I sat with three elderly black couples who’d made the pilgrimage from Mississippi, discussing the history I had studied but which they had lived.