When those passing by or browsing the web first set eyes on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest Smithsonian museum that opened Sept. 24, 2016, on the National Mall mere steps from the Washington Monument, they often see echoes of a slave ship in the building’s architecture.
But visitors to the museum learn the real architectural inspiration behind the bronze-colored and tiered layering of the building when they tour its top floor galleries.
There, a work by Nigerian sculptor Olowe of Ise (c. 1873-1938)—which closely resembles another of the artist’s pieces on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)—appears in a glass case in the middle of a room. The work is a caryatid, an architectural column in the form of a standing human figure featuring a corona on top.
The Met refers to Olowe, who created a series of supports depicting equestrian warriors for a palace courtyard, as “the most renowned master sculptor in the history of Yoruba art.”
The Met’s work has a two-tiered crown, though, while the sculpture at the NMAAHC has three tiers and, on observing them, the inspiration for the museum’s exterior becomes clear.
A label at the NMAAHC notes that the museum’s architecture also responds to “the shape made by African American women’s arms lifted in prayer,” as well as the “ornate ironwork made by free and enslaved craftspeople.” And the museum’s lead designer David Adjaye has said that the building’s form suggests “a very upward mobility. It’s not a story of a people that were taken down, but actually, a people that overcame and transformed an entire superpower into what it is today.”
That’s very different from the interpretation of the facade as a slave ship. Still, when UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key paid a long-awaited visit to the much-anticipated museum in mid-January, he said that the model of a slave ship that visitors walk through is one of the exhibits that made the greatest impression on him.
The museum also displays artifacts, on long-term loan, from a Portuguese slave ship that crashed in 1794 off the South African coast. More than 200 of the slaves drowned, while the survivors were resold into slavery.
The 400,000-square-foot museum, which sits on a five-acre site, houses roughly 36,000 artifacts documenting more than 400 years of history. “It is a sense of pride to have African-American history on the Mall with all of the other historical sites and museums,” Key said. “Personally, it is like a void was filled.”
About 60 percent of the NMAAHC is below-grade. And one approach to touring the museum is to begin in the history galleries on the lower levels and ascend through time.
In this way, visitors experience the journey from slavery and freedom, through reconstruction, to segregation—including a recreation of the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in lunch counter— to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that expanded on earlier civil rights legislation through its provisions for equal housing rights, and, finally, to the ever-changing America beyond.
The symbolism of a transformative rise from the depths is striking, said Key. “From below ground to the top floor, the exhibits are presented as history unfolds. Chronologically, the curators’ layout is excellent."
The museum is jam-packed with stand-out artifacts and displays. Key encourages visitors to tour the visual arts exhibitions on the top floor that feature familiar names such as Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Kara Walker and Jacob Lawrence, as well as some wonderful surprises. Included in the exhibition is “Sankofa II” by James Phillips, whose work is the subject of the exhibition “Swirling Complexity into Culture,” on display at UMUC until April 16.
Reflecting on synergies between the museum and the university, Key said, “We both recognize great historical talent in our community. James Phillips has a history of creating great, thought-provoking works that embody his thoughts about African-American culture.
“He has his place in the annals of art, and we both recognize his contribution to society through his art.”
At the museum, Key also recommends that visitors pay special attention to the highlights of African-American life in America, including Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac Eldorado, as well as displays celebrating African-American achievements in film and in television.
“It surprised me that the museum managed to fit 400-plus years of African-American history and culture in one building,” Key said.
One of the most powerful displays is the casket of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who, while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, was murdered for reportedly flirting with a white woman. A museum fact sheet relates the widely-held belief that Till’s murder helped to galvanize the Civil Rights movement.
The casket, Key said, is a sobering and important reminder of a part of American history that must not ever be repeated. “It is also a reminder of the dangers of dual societies and the idea of one people’s supremacy over another.
“The death of Emmett Till reminds us of the struggle for change, and it empowers us to continue to fight for positive change. It teaches us that people shouldn’t settle for injustice anywhere,” Key added.
“The team at the museum did an amazing job organizing so much in the space. There is something for everybody. It is reflective, and it serves as a symbol of pride,” Key said.
The sheer magnitude of material to absorb can be overwhelming, Key suggested; it requires revisiting and careful consideration over an extended period. “It’s a space that you can’t see and remember in just one visit,” he said.
Credits: Photos by Ferdous Al-Faruque.