The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a treat my family couldn’t get enough of. I highly recommend visiting when you get a chance.
Even better, make it a two-day affair. There is SO MUCH to take in and that’s hard to do in a few hours.
I won’t call the museum perfect but it is an awesome start and a welcome addition as a new national treasure.
Exciting Surprise?!?Free Tickets To The Museum!
I have heard about the NMAAHC since it was authorized in 2002 to be built and the tremendous feat to raise $540 million to build it. It seemed like a set-up but per usual, a way was made out of no way and the museum has finally opened its doors almost 15 years later. The best part is hometown architect Phil Freelon is the architect on record and a co-designer of the museum… a fact I shared repeatedly with my future architect son. I had to get him and his brother to D.C. to see what he could accomplish one day.
I did not make plans to go too close to the opening but when a friend offered her tickets for early October since she was unable to make it, I gladly obliged! My Dad was able to join us making it a three generation adventure!
Tip #1: Tickets go fast so please spread the love. If you can’t make it to your appointed time, please send your tickets to a friend or cancel them so someone else can grab them. There was an endless line of people without tickets standing in the rain with hopes of getting inside. That wasn’t happening without available space (aka tickets). Free yours up so others can have the opportunity to take it all in.
Exploring African American History
Though we got into the building immediately, we still had to wait over an hour in line before we could see the main exhibit — three underground floors containing the history of my ancestors through my generation… from pre-slavery to present day.
It broke my heart to see some Africans who sold people into slavery, did so to keep from being enslaved.
And seeing the tiny shackles for children who were enslaved 😥 .
The middle passage display was not as emotional or jarring as the display I cried tears over at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit but it made a point.
I was excited to see the stories about the lives of my ancestors who lived in Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana. My Dad and sons left me as I read about the lifestyles, work and issues met by my people in these parts of the country.
I was horrified to see the number of enslaved people dramatically rose AFTER the Revolutionary War! Especially when many African-Americans joined the war including the first casualty Crispus Attucks.
Fortunately this museum shared diverse stories and artifacts of the enslaved and the free including self-emancipated Harriet Tubman.
The stories of slaves, slave masters, freemen, and the fight to make things right encompassed the whole first floor. We saw those stories no one likes to talk about or seems to be in denial about like…
Yes, slaves built the White House and here’s a picture portraying what it looked like!
or sharing how many of our nation’s powerful historical figures had slaves on their balance sheets and in their homes (looking at you Jefferson AND Washington).
Common themes of spirituality and entrepreneurship were scattered throughout the entire exhibit.
There was SO much to read. So much couldn’t be read since it was in very small, sometimes handwritten print. And we were trying to get through the museum so there really wasn’t time to read very much.
Tip #2: Be ready to expend a lot of energy. After a good breakfast, all that waiting, and exploration of HALF of the FIRST floor, my Dad and I started to hear the chorus of the day
Warning: Once you are on the first floor, it’s very difficult to leave and come back for anything. There is a bathroom and water fountain down there but none on the next two floors. Once you leave this exhibit space, you have to wait in line to return again. If you have children, I strongly suggest quietly bringing small, “clean” snacks to help the experience remain as pleasant as possible (shhh… it’s our secret).
Fight For Freedom
The second floor brought emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. There was a chronological view of what freedom from slavery really meant after the end of the Civil War. The struggle was illustrated much more than I’ve ever seen before. Not only were the enslaved released with little to no resources for survival, there were actual groups and laws formed to hold them back from growing too much economically. Lynching became common to terrorize African Americans for any reason and no reason at all.
For a while, there were race riots occurring in cities across the country for anything from a white woman accusing a black man of whistling at her to accusations of job stealing. A big hole I saw when discussing race riots was the missing 1898 Wilmington Race Riot. I think this was one of the most significant riots to share because it is the only documented coup d’etat on U.S. soil. I’m sure it’s coming eventually, but still… THE ONLY COUP D’ETAT IN THE U.S. WAS AGAINST AN ELECTED CITY GOVERNMENT OF AFRICAN AMERICANS and this event did not make it into a museum all about African American History in the nation’s capital??
I was so amazed when I learned about this story just a few years ago because I didn’t realize African Americans had that kind of political power immediately post-slavery. Excuse me if I think more people should know about it.
However, I was glad to see East St Louis, IL and its controversial past represented. I think the city remains in a state of blight because of how this went down nearly 100 years ago. To imagine this fight was about JOBS in EAST ST LOUIS.
This wasn’t the only story from close to home (by the way, I’m from St. Louis).
One of my favorite entrepreneurs, Ms. Annie Turnbo Malone, had a presence in the building. Although the display directly next to her about CJ Walker claims otherwise, evidence shows Annie Malone as the first black female millionaire. She did so much for St. Louis and her direct legacy continues working today.
I know the question of who the first black female millionaire can be a controversial topic. I hope the curators at NMAAHC or someone takes the time to clear this up once and for all.
Of course there were regulars like MLK, Emmitt Till (in a powerful, special display in its own room), March on Washington, relics of the KKK (side note: I wondered why they were there, but this group DID have a profound effect on African Americans as an early modern terrorist organization) …
The information and artifacts in these displays were more comprehensive than other museums I’ve been to that were not specifically dedicated to one person or period of time — on that note, PLEASE go visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC for an awesome, emotional experience on the civil rights movement in the United States and others from around the world.
The biggest takeaway here was the fight my grandparents’ generation had to endure just to have some control over their own lives whether money to work or the ability to vote. They were terrorized in so many ways, even to the point of losing lives, because others didn’t want them to participate or use their voices.
Tip #4: Take breaks. As you move to higher floors, you will see spaces to sit and watch video, or participate in other interactive media. I strongly suggest doing so as a way to get off your feet for a bit. My kids especially LOVED the interactive lunch counter. It gave them something to do and an opportunity to experience the kind of decision-making that took place during different resistance movements. There weren’t many seats there but I sat one child on my lap.
Picking Up The Pace Of History
By the post-1968 floor, we were pushing it to get off our feet and fed. I was carrying my 7-year-old on my back, assuring him that we were almost finished, a rallying cry I heard from many fellow parents by this time. I still tried my best to soak as much information as I could. That said, the number of artifacts and displays seemed less than before anyway.
I was excited to see artifacts and images from the Million Women March I attended as a college student in 1997. I shared the story with my children of getting on a bus and riding across the country in one day, spending the day in Philadelphia, and then getting right back on the bus to ride home to Columbia, MO. That was such a LONG ride but I remember the ride home being the best part about the entire trip just from the bonding that took place among us Mizzou sisters.
Anyway, Oprah Winfrey had an expansive display and there was an NWA flag that took up a major piece of space compared to the rest of the artifacts in the museum.
Though there was mention of how “the projects” were formed as well as African American vacations at The Inkwell on Martha’s Vineyard, MA, the greatest focus was on the middle class experience. That’s all good but there was more happening in our world than that — gangs, drugs, and other real pieces of African American society during this time were not present or discussed (unless I missed it). This is an opportunity to break down the stereotypes and tell the real story about why these vices came to exist in our communities as well as how they have evolved.
And where was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? He’s not my favorite person either but, really??? He’s a rare, high-ranking, African-American presence in this age at one of the highest levels of U.S. government.
Anita Hill was in there, why not him? I don’t dispute her rightful place in any museum, especially this one, but he should have a place too.
This IS an opportunity to tell the unvarnished truth about his contributions to society at this level.
To tell the FACTS of what he did with the platform he was chosen to have. Just the facts will be enough (so they won’t get twisted later).
This void reminds me of the many museums that are missing African American stories except for slavery and Martin Luther King, Jr with the Civil Rights Movement. There is so much that could be done with telling all of our story and telling it right.
Since we have a NATIONAL African American Museum, it should tell the whole experience, not just the ones that look good. I admit, I couldn’t take it all in so I may have missed the stories I thought was missing. If that’s the case, my bad.
This exhibit ends with the Obama presidency including First Lady Michelle Obama’s dress from the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary celebration. That said, sprinkled throughout this floor were #BlackLivesMatter and people/stories that inspired the movement.
Side Note: Where Is The History Space For Kids?
Throughout the history exhibit, there were signs letting us know where children shouldn’t view or go without parental guidance. I SO wish there was at least one space for children to go and experience our history in their special way. There was no space for them to touch, hear, and see stories relatable to them and in their language.
There’s More Museum?!?
When we finally exited the history exhibit some HOURS later, we briefly considered the much discussed Sweet Home Cafe’. Since that meant another line to get into and a displayed menu of food that didn’t seem kid-friendly (although days later I looked at the #NMAAHC app and saw there actually was kid-friendly fare), we decided to go upstairs and out of the museum. Eventually we made it to the food truck line outside. But first I remembered the kids insistence on going upstairs when we first entered the museum, before we went downstairs. They were excited to go up the escalator again to the upper floors to quickly check out this space.
The Rest of The Museum
So there are another THREE floors of museum that could really be their own spaces. Definitely more ways to personally interact with history including a family genealogy space, a stepshow simulation, and a further exploration of various artifacts in the history exhibit via touchscreen.
Apparently my oldest son’s favorite part of the museum was video footage of the shipwrecked Sao Jose, a Portuguese slave ship that got caught in tumultuous waves off the East African coast in the 1800s. Various artifacts from the shipwreck are in the museum and this underwater video footage of them getting those artifacts was interesting.
This was one of my favorite areas and I had to capture a picture of it:
The Sports and Military galleries were AMAZING. By the time we sped through this floor, it was really time to go and we missed what I heard was the BEST part of the museum… the next floor up… the exhibit all about the arts. We just had to go eat and rest our feet.
I really could go on and on about more of what we saw but I’m sure you’re ready to go too!
Tip #5: Navigation strategy – bottom up to main, top back to bottom. When you finish the history exhibit, go to the top floor and work your way down to the main floor. I received this tip after our visit and I think it is a good strategy to lighten up after taking all of that history in. From what I hear, there are wonderful views of outside and great music to take in. As you make your way down, there will be more seating to rest your laurels and really reflect on everything you have taken in.
Overall, this visit was awesome. I can’t wait to take the kids back next year. I know over 35,000 artifacts are held by this museum of which we only saw a fraction of.
Maybe I’ll see the items I missed before the next time we go.
Regardless, I’m glad this museum FINALLY exists and look forward to visiting and interacting with it much more in the future.
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