Written by Lee – Trace
This building, the National Museum of African American History & Culture, really caught our eye when we went for the march, partially because of it’s location. It sort of stands all by itself between the mall and the Washington monument. In fact it’s the only building (apart from the monument) that stands in that massive expanse of green made up by 14th , 17th, Constitution and Independence. And it’s just a beautiful building, architecturally. I had never been, it only just opened four years ago, so I was excited to see it.
At the time I went, it was almost completely open, with only a few small rooms closed for Covid. They were, of course, taking aggressive CoVid precautions, and using timed entry passes to keep numbers down. (As of this writing, 11/20/20, they are closing indefinitely on 11/23/20) Admission is free, as it is a Smithsonian.
When I visited, only one entrance was open, and they did a great job of keeping people separated. There are two floors below grade, and the experience begins at the bottom, so initially you descend. When you get to that section, the gallery and exhibit are about the beginning of slavery in America. The exhibits are very well done, and have a powerful impact. I was completely mesmerized and for a while totally forgot to try to take pictures, so I went back to the beginning, but it was also very, very dark and almost impossible to get any pictures.
The start of the experience is designed to evoke some pretty specific emotions, and it works. There are a lot of exhibits explaining what it would have been like for a person to be captured and shipped to the US as a slave. It’s dark, and the ceilings are quite low, and it feels very cramped and tight. There is also a distinct feeling of being “funneled”, propelled forward and onward through the winding maze of exhibits. It’s hard to stay in one place. It was very unsettling, and my hat is off to the designers, because in no time at all I was very uncomfortable and unhappy, and just really didn’t like the way it was making me feel. There was a lot of information, and suffice it to say that the message was clear. I had to stop several times and just take a moment to compose myself, catch my breath; the entire thing was like taking multiple body blows. I was happy to see that there were several discreetly places little nooks and alcoves once I was out of that initial experience that were clearly designed for people to take a moment and reflect, and face away from each other to get themselves together.
As I continued through the museum, I have to say it didn’t get any better. There were several times that I almost left, because it was so overwhelming. The exhibits were incredibly well done, and laid out well and sort of marched through time and related the experience of African Americans in the United States throughout history. And it was all pretty awful. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I expected. I already knew this was a terrible story, and it’s not like it was heavy handed and over the top. The facts are what they are, and it was just hard to take in all at once.
I’ve certainly been asking myself a lot for the past few years what it might be like to be black in this country, and this was sort of like getting hit by the freight train version of that thought. I saw a lot of younger African American people reading these exhibit cards and I don’t think I will ever forget the expressions on most of their faces. It was a combination of resignation, sadness, outrage and indignation.
I will say that I have never seen that many people quietly reading in any museum. Most of the people there were reading every placard, and it was pretty quiet. Even the youngest kids seemed engrossed. I couldn’t really take a lot of pictures, because a lot of the stuff was too big, and if I pulled back it included people who were intently reading and I just didn’t feel comfortable taking their picture. So I do not really have a lot of photos of most of the historical stuff, but it’s outstanding. As you go higher up in the building it becomes less about those things and more about accomplishments and achievements, and while those were wonderful, they weren’t very photogenic.
Eventually I got to the gallery of entertainment and culture, and that was a totally different, celebratory vibe. So that’s mostly what I have photos of.
This place had a massive impact on me, and this experience has already changed how I behave out in the real world. So. If you can, you should go.
I would like to say here that it took Lee days to write this post. As I am proof reading it I am surprised by how little he actually wrote. This may be one of those places that simply cannot be described in words. – Trace
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Wow! I have never been to that museum – and it is definitely on my list now! Your description and reactions sound so similar to mine the first time I visited the Holocaust Museum near us in Farmington Hills. The exterior is stark and foreboding. Inside, you start by learning about European Jewish history prior to the Holocaust – so much industry, art, spirituality – and then you descend into the darkness of the atrocities that were committed during the Holocaust. Finally, you sit down and talk with a holocaust survivor (I don’t know if this is still done – I went first around 2004, shortly after it opened and there were a lot more survivors still alive) – it was a very emotional day. Thanks for detailing your experience!
Thank you! Sadly, the Holocaust museum was not open, I am really hoping we can swing through here again next year and I can see the things I wasn’t able to this time around. Thanks as always for coming along with us on our journey! – Lee
I really enjoyed our visit to this museum. Thank you for the memories!