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Fri May 19, 2017, 10:09 PM

I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture today

Wow.

It took this long to get tickets, but we finally managed to swing some. I thought I'd share my experience.

First off, the location and exterior design. The Museum is like an inverted pyramid or obelisk with its apex buried into the Mall; a squat, geometric and chromatic inversion of the Washington Monument whose shadow it sits in. Although the above-ground floors are largely glass-walled, the windows are covered with wrought-metal rafia work that, combined with the shadows of the overhanging storeys above, makes the whole building appear black.

The inverted pyramid plan offers a distinct advantage as you stand in line: you're shaded from the sun (it was 90 degrees today). And there's a water element in the entrance courtyard that both provides some sonic privacy and cools the air a little.

The museum comprises seven floors: the entrance floor with the administrative stuff, gift shop, auditorium, etc.; three traditional "museum" floors below it, and three more interactive floors above it. In broad strokes, "down" represents the past and "up" the present and future; it is intended that you should visit the museum from bottom to top.

After you enter, you ride an elevator down to the lowest level. As the building is an inverted pyramid, this is the smallest and most confined; it is completely underground. There are no windows, no sunlight, and very little ambient lighting. Everything is unfinished timber, deliberately like the hold of a slave ship (there are even original timbers from the middle passage in a few places).

It begins, fascinatingly, with a story of the development of the nation-state in Europe and Africa in the 1400s, and it makes this crucial point:

In 1500, slavery was universal, practiced nearly everywhere in the world. But it was also not inherited, not race-based, not commoditized (a slave could not in general be "sold"), and did not in general last for the slave's entire life.

By 1700, slavery was outlawed in most of the world except for a few specific regions where it thrived. It was inherited, entirely race-based, and not just commoditized but financialized (not only could slaves be bought and sold, they could be mortgaged, and the mortgages could be tranched and sold as derivatives -- sound familiar?)

The rest of the bottom floor then covers the story of slavery in North America, with artifacts, contemporary paintings, and multimedia installations. You don't see any images of Jefferson (more on this in a bit), but you see the document by which he enslaved his own biological children. It's hard. It's hard and it doesn't pull any punches whatsoever about the extent to which America is intrinsically and inseparably tied up with slavery; there is no "sanitized" version of the country without it; it was not an exception; it was fundamental.

The next floor covers emancipation, beginning with Bacon's rebellion and Nat Turner, then the Civil War and Reconstruction. This floor is broader, with more modern materials, and (the architect was ****ing brilliant here) has the very first bit of sunlight you've seen since you got in the elevator fall from the very bottom of a window that is just low enough to be on this level, onto the uniform and weapons of a black Union soldier.

Everybody has different things that get them. I was doing OK until I got to Reconstruction and they showed example after example of classified ads people put in black newspapers looking for their families they had been separated from during slavery; I kind of lost it there.

The third floor, now at ground level and more regularly lit by natural exterior light, covers the Great Migration, the various Harlem, etc., renaissances, and "the civil rights movement", starting with Plessy's actual streetcar. There are installations on SNCC, BPP, and all the great leaders (it even has Rob Williams' shotgun).

Then you're back up on the lobby floor (this might be a good time to eat at the cafe, which is awesome). Up above there are three floors of more contemporary stuff; things made by 20th and 21st century African American artists. You can see Bootsy's bass and suit, Jimi's guitar, Ella's dress, Flavor's clock, etc.

These floors are open, large, airy, and absolutely flooded with natural light. There's an expansive view of the Mall, and you can feel the rush of having more space, more light, and more air after the time you spent below decks, as it were.

One thing that didn't strike me until after I had left is that really just about everybody who is portrayed is African American. You don't see Bull Conor. You don't see George Wallace standing in the door. You don't see Jefferson even if you see his bill of lading and sale. The only white people that were portrayed were Bill Clinton (and Arsenio was the foreground of that shot), some random unnamed white dude who had happened to sit for an oil painting portrait by a black artist, and Peter Norman in the Smith/Carlos statue. That's it; otherwise African American bodies tell African American stories. It was exactly the right decision, IMO.

Anyways: if you are going by DC, and can get timed entry passes, get them. If you can't get them, you can try for a walk-up after 1pm (on a weekday it should probably be feasible, though maybe not at the heights of tourist season). This museum is amazing.

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Reply I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture today (Original post)
Recursion May 19 OP
elleng May 19 #1
mopinko May 19 #2
GeoWilliam750 May 19 #3
littlemissmartypants May 19 #4
SunSeeker Saturday #5
Hekate Saturday #6
kwassa Saturday #7
Recursion Saturday #8
politicasista Monday #9

Response to Recursion (Original post)

Fri May 19, 2017, 10:16 PM

1. Thanks for the fine description, Recursion.

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Fri May 19, 2017, 10:42 PM

2. sounds pretty awesome.

sounds like some really smart design. a big thing to wrap your arms around. always nice to hear that someone rose to a challenge like that.

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Fri May 19, 2017, 10:45 PM

3. Thank you for sharing

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Fri May 19, 2017, 11:14 PM

4. Thank you for sharing this Recursion. ♡ lmsp

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Sat May 20, 2017, 01:16 AM

5. Thank you for that vivid, intimate description. It really is the best I've read.

And I've read a lot of articles on that museum, since I worked with people involved in it. I've been dying to go and check it out. Now I want to go even more!

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Sat May 20, 2017, 01:54 AM

6. Thank you for your wonderful description, Recursion

Last time I was in DC I saw the Native American museum that had just opened. I don't know when I'll be back again, as my friends who used to work in Civil Service retired and moved to Florida a number of years ago, so I'll have to pay for a hotel in addition to the flight from California.

I've read about the new AA Museum, but yours is the best "tour" yet that I have had. Tha k you again.

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Sat May 20, 2017, 09:40 PM

7. How many hours did you spend there?

We spent three, then did the lunch at that great cafe, and left. I was with my elderly mother-in-law, though, and that is all that she was good for. We saw the bottom three floors. My wife came back about a month later with her girl scout troop and did the upper floors, but I haven't been able to get back in yet. It is still very hard to get tickets.

I live in Montgomery County, MD, and there is a house in this museum from here, and a display about black life in MoCo on the inside, which I was not expecting in a national museum.

I liked the display symbolism with the slavery story starting with the worst part down in the bottom of the basement, and gradually climbing upwards into the light. My daughter liked the interactive lunch counter, which is a great way to educate the younger ones.

Many things moved me, the entire experience was very powerful.

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Response to kwassa (Reply #7)

Sat May 20, 2017, 09:56 PM

8. Five hours, including one for lunch

We did three on the lower levels, then one just having lunch and perusing the gift shop, and one on the upper levels.

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Mon May 22, 2017, 04:31 PM

9. Thank you Recursion

for sharing this. I would love to visit this when I visit DC.

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