New Smithsonian African American Museum Opening

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Anticipation has mounted as people have watched new bronze-colored, visually interesting building take shape on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Finally, they will be able to see the interior; the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the 19th museum under the Smithsonian umbrella, is opening on Saturday, Sept. 24.

Due to popular demand, timed ticket entries are required. More tickets are being released for extended hours on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

The new African American Museum’s collection includes more than 37,000 objects that delve into the history of black America. It looks at Black lives through slavery, segregation and civil rights, politics, education, music, style, sports, literature and everyday life in the last few centuries. While it might seem that the American History museum would encompass the same topics, this indepth look really illustrates, in detail, how “Black Lives Matter” and have mattered throughout U.S. history.

The museum (and its contents) went through some shifts in perspective since an Act of Congress established it in 2003. As the New York Times noted, at that time, “Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois; the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin was years in the future; and Bill Cosby was a symbol of family decency.” Here, 13 years later and the first black U.S. president is completing his second term, Cosby is alleged to be a serial sexual predator, and race relations is a bigger topic than it has been in decades.

Slavery and Bill Cosby are two controversial topics the museum had to grapple with in telling its story. But, both needed including as historical facts. The artifacts on slavery that are featured include items from a slave ship, things that belonged to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a Jim Crow-era railroad car an auction block from a slave sale and a former slave cabin.

Like it or not, Cosby was an extremely significant entertainer paving the way on national television for Blacks. His contributions in “I Spy,” “Fat Albert,” even the Jell-o commercials, and finally “The Cosby Show,” which chronicled the life of an upper middle-class African American family for eight years.

Crowd favorites are sure to be museum exhibits on African-American achievements in fields like music and sports. Music runs the gamut from street corner entertainers through the blues stars (such as B.B.King), Louis Armstrong, the Motown sound, and more recent acts including the late Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince. Sports paraphernalia includes a track uniform, running shoes, and Olympic Gold Medals from Carl Lewis; headgear and gloves from Muhammad Ali; and baseball gear from Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

The approximately 350,000-square-foot building itself is also noteworthy. While the building has a classical Greco-Roman structure like most other federal buildings in the capital, the building itself is wrapped in a visually evocative ornamental cast-aluminum design.

Lead designer David Adjaye, of the architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, is the son of an African diplomat. Lead architect Philip Freelon is a leading designer of African American museums. The team incorporated design elements from Africa and former slaves into the exterior. They include crowns from West African Yoruban art as well as ornamental bronze-colored lattice work typical of iron work crafted in the South

The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is expected to be very crowded from opening day on for the foreseeable future. Their website offers glimpse for those who cannot visit D.C. soon (or cannot get one of the timed entry passes).

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

Smithsonian: National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History & Culture
Los Angeles Times: Why the exterior of D.C.’s soon-to-open African American museum is an exciting sign of what’s inside
New York Times: How Do You Tell the Story of Black America in One Museum?

Photo by Tony Hisgett – Creative Commons license