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On September 14th I previewed the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of the museum’s identified Social Influencer group. My preview reflects what I saw while I was there. Please keep in mind that staff was still working to complete and refine elements before opening day on Saturday, September 24th. Certain space, like the gift shop, were not open.
Before even leaving the foyer, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is quite overwhelming. It’s history, architecture, size and encyclopedic scope all command attention.
A little over a century before the doors of the museum were scheduled to open to the public, a group of African American Civil War veterans conceived of the possibility of a national memorial to honor African Americans and their service. NMAAHC is the fruition of that dream, and also a product of the contemporary iteration of the Black Freedom Struggle. Much like Black Lives Matter, the museum produced strong digital content and programming, helping it gain supporters before it opened to the public.
Spacious elevators and transitional ramps between exhibit spaces, made the museum fairly easy to physically navigate.
With the grandeur of this project, it is easy to narrowly focus on the extra sensory material: Thomas Jefferson’s larger-than-life sculpture in front of a brick memorial inscribed with the names of people he enslaved, the sit-in at the interactive lunch counter and different auditory devices. Yet, NMAAHC still manages to present black history in a way that many other museums have yet to produce.
There is an incredible amount of material to absorb. The museum is divided into three sections: history, community and culture. Visit all of the floors but spend the most time in the areas that you enjoy or want to learn more about. Get food at the Sweet Home Cafe. Each section in the cafeteria features black-inspired dishes based on region. I was a little sad that there was not a space for vegetarians/ vegans. For those interested, acclaimed chef and author of Afro-Vegan Bryant Terry will be doing cooking demonstrations on opening day.
As a curator, I was drawn to the photographs which dominated the exhibit spaces in both number and influence. Unlike many history and cultural museums, photographs here dictate the narrative. Rather intended or unintended, to me it signified how black people have presented themselves- through image and word, not necessarily through precious objects. The inclusion of Frederick Douglass’s bust, an ambrotype portrait and printed portrait substantiates this observation. As the most photographed man in the 19th century, he used portraiture as a political tool for race vindication. He sought to prove black people were respectable and worthy of full citizenship in the United States. Going through the galleries, I layered this narrative with thoughts on black people’s commitment to image as a way of asserting agency.
Through image, the institutional narrative upholds black women’s role in leading generations. The very first text panel features images of Angolan Queen Nzinga. Introducing black history at the museum through a 17th century free woman of color with noted political acumen sends an important message. By using a free woman of color, they also introduced history untethered to an identity dependent on an enslaver. Images of black women introduce a significant amount of the other gallery spaces.
Though the images and the way the NMAACH used them captured my attention, I don’t want to detract from the artifacts. The small cast iron shackles for children paralyzed me. Those shackles are several centuries old but have a very real presence in a country that still targets black, brown and impoverished youth for extrajudicial punishment.
Other artifacts made me proud. I liked Chuck Berry’s cadillac. It is bright red, bold, unapologetic and takes up space. Really it’s main function is to demonstrate supreme opulence. Black people are worthy of owning materials they don’t need. If I so choose, I’m worthy of owning materials I don’t need and I don’t have to be humble about it.
Outside of material culture, I also really appreciated the way the curators wrote about black history. These are granule details that many will miss, but were important to me nonetheless. For example, the text panel on James McCune Smith identifies him as the “first university-trained African American physician.” The phrase university-trained gives way for interpretation that there is a longer history of healers and rootworkers who the community recognized and relied on as physicians but were not university trained.
I think these details indirectly allow black people to connect with the marked diversity in their own genealogy. We have a relative who did not have the opportunity to earn a degree in Finance, but still managed a litany of entrepreneurial ventures that put their kids through college. We also have an accomplished relative who was the first African American in their field. We are proud of both. And the museum features both.
For people who don’t identify as black, these small details provide a textured rendering of the black experience that they may have overlooked all along.
Cultural Expressions includes subtle details that are so critical to holistically understanding black culture and mannerisms like the headnod, the side eye, child handclap games and more. Though they may be brief, these moments of interaction can offer affirmation or noted disapproval. They are methods of survival.
Certain treatments of different time periods were satisfying. I am always looking for museums to branch out of a one-dimensional interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Obama as post-racial Messiah narrative. I am also always looking for museums to do something substantial on Black Power and Black Feminism. NMAAHC mostly granted all of my wishes.
In the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation, 1876- 1968 section, the timetables make it clear that Civil Rights and Black Power often overlapped. For example, the Deacons for Defense (founded in 1964) who believed in armed self-defense often protected non-violent protesters. The spaces in this exhibit clearly communicate that there was fluidity between the two movements, rather than the movements rotating separately in their own universes like many popular accounts depict them.
The Foundations of Black Power exhibit present material beyond the Black Panther Party, Angela Davis, the iconic fists and halo shaped afros. Substantial sections on Black Liberation Theology and the Nation of Islam illustrate how black people combated white supremacy through their faith in a God that looked like them and related to their experience. Others focus on the cultural production and materials of Black Power.
A section on Black Feminism is in this exhibit, which I’ve never seen at any museum I’ve visited! Rather because of ignorance or insecurities in charting this territory, museums have often just omitted Black Feminists and Womanists. They are women who are fighting against patriarchy both in and outside of their race, while also fighting white supremacy.
Though this museum is about the African American experience, it does not void the fact that they are part of the African Diaspora- forced and intentional movements throughout the world. People throughout the Diaspora can relate to this through the curators’ commitment to highlighting the influences and parallels between different cultural expressions. While this entire experience is a communal journey, there is room for personal reflection and contemplation. There will be spaces set up for that, and the minimalistic fine arts galleries on the top floor also serve as a metaphoric reflective position on the mountain top. I still wish there were more benches in the lower floors both for reflection, and for people who may not be able to handle that amount of standing and walking in one full sweep.
Personally, the museum reminded me of who I am. In one of the transitional walls between exhibits is the maya Angelou quote, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
Aleia Brown holds a joint position in the Michigan State University museum and the History Department. She is the co-founder of two acclaimed digital projects- #BlkTwitterstorians and #museumsrespondtoferguson. Her written work on the intersections of race and gender in museums have appeared in Slate, TIMELINE magazine and other digital platforms.
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