In mid-May, 2016, the architects, curators, engineers, PR folks and security guards stood aside and allowed an ensemble of press to enter the newest, still-in-progress structure on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The hard-hat tour gave a preview of what’s to come—among the exhibits visible: an original slave cabin relocated from a South Carolina plantation and a biplane used by the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II—but the real excitement comes in four months.
It is then, on Sept. 24, 2016, that all will be revealed and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a long-awaited member of the Smithsonian family, opens with a grand celebration.
Since its February 2012 groundbreaking, this striking 400,000-square-foot building has emerged at 15th and Constitution, its silhouette and surface like no other property in the capital.
And rightly so. Four teams, one with lead designer David Adjaye, have produced a glass showcase wrapped in 3,600 panels of intricately patterned aluminum. The bronze-toned metalwork, rising in tiers and dubbed “the corona,” allows for dappled light to enter and for a glow to emanate by night. It’s a form that evokes the top of a Yoruban column as well as the ironwork crafted in this country by “invisible” slaves and freedmen. Reflecting that long ago impact of African culture underscores the museum’s promise and mission: to see America through the lens of black history.
Set on a five-acre tract beside the Washington Monument, the $540 million LEED Gold structure (half funded by the federal government, half by the Smithsonian) consists of nine levels, five (60 percent of the museum) below ground. This allows for 3,000 objects in spaces vast enough for a hovering Tuskegee open-cockpit biplane and intimate enough for Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert outfit.
By ramps, elevator and a “helix” staircase, visitors access displays, poignant quotations and videos. Above-ground galleries (“two attics”) trace black culture through music, visual arts and performance, as well as through community life in foods, the military and sports. Below-ground galleries (“a crypt”) lead visitors through time from the Middle Passage, Colonial- and Civil War-era America and Reconstruction to the Jim Crow period, Civil Rights, Black Power and the second election of President Barack Obama.
A mix of highlights: the South Carolina slave cabin, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, Emmett Till’s casket, Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac, Muhammad Ali’s terrycloth robe and the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater. A fitting respite: the Contemplative Court, where visitors can gather to reflect beneath a lofty oculus.