From darkness to light: Inside D.C.'s new African-American museum

On Washington's National Mall, the dark bronze edifice stands in stark contrast with its white-marble neighbours. Appropriately so, given the distinct story that the new National Museum of African American History and Culture seeks to tell about what it means to be American.

Obama helps open $540M Smithsonian building on 'America's Front Yard', includes thousands of artifacts

U.S. President Barack Obama at the opening ceremony of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 0:29

On Washington's National Mall, the dark bronze edifice stands in stark contrast to its white-marble neighbours.

Appropriately so, given the distinct story that the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening Saturday, seeks to tell about what it means to be American.

The Smithsonian Institution's latest addition on the plot of D.C. parkland known as "America's Front Yard" comes at a time "when social and political discourse remind us that racism is not, unfortunately, a thing of the past," Smithsonian secretary David Skorton said at a preview ceremony.

Nearly 37,000 artifacts comprise the new museum's collection, though just 3,000 are immediately available for viewing.

Some pieces — Olympic track legend Jesse Owens's cleats, abolitionist Harriet Tubman's lace shawl and hymnal book or Louis Armstrong's trumpet — might summon feelings of pride and admiration.

Chuck Berry's red Cadlilac stands in the museum's fourth-floor culture gallery. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

Other artifacts, like a slave whip and wrought-iron shackles small enough for children, or the glass-topped coffin of Emmett Till, "may make you angry, or move you to tears," Skorton said, referencing the 14-year-old Mississippi teen who was murdered in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman.

"Great Negro Mart," reads one undated advertisement card for a slave dealer from Memphis, Tenn. There is an 1835 bill of sale for a 16-year-old enslaved girl named Polly for $600 US.

Civil rights icon Rosa Parks was working on this dress at home in 1955 on the day she was arrested after she refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

Another display holds an assortment of U.S. President Barack Obama's "Hope" campaign buttons, as well as the Tracy Reese dress that Michelle Obama wore for the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

As visitors explore its more than 37,000 square metres, the museum's founding director Lonnie Bunch wants people to think about being inside a place "that looks back, that revels in the past, but that is pointed to the future."

Rather than to build a $540-million US monument to slavery and suffering, Bunch aimed for the 12 inaugural exhibitions to find a tension between the tragedy and resiliency of black Americans.

Bridging between the past, present and future has been a focus of the layout. The story proceeds chronologically.

A slave cabin from the Point of Pines Plantation is on display at the museum. The cabin, which was taken apart and reassembled inside the museum, would have housed up to 16 people. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

The history galleries are purposefully dark and confined. About 60 per cent of the museum is underground, evoking oppressive times. Later, visitors ascend to brighter galleries. Tape loops of speeches by civil-rights luminaries like Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr. transition to the funky slap bass of Sly & the Family Stone's Everyday People.

But the experience begins in the below-ground concourses with the 15th-century history of the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage journey of kidnapped Africans. Ceilings are low and lighting dim, "as if you're in the ship," explained Ruthann Uithol, one of the registrars overseeing acquisition logistics.

A sign for the Booker T. Motel in Tennessee welcomes black travellers in the segregated U.S. South. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

"Those are pieces from an actual slave-wreck excavated off the coast of Cape Town," she said, pointing to a wooden ballast from 1794 Portuguese slave ship the Sao Jose Paquete de Africa.

A 17th-century quote on the wall describes conditions below the deck: "There is no Spaniard who dares to stick his head in the hatch without becoming ill … so real is the stench, the crowding and the misery."

This Southern Railway car, with segregated sections, had to be lowered into the museum building. Visitors will be able to walk through the car. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The gallery moves through the Civil War, past the Memphis auction card selling human beings, and past the cramped Point of Pines Cabin that was rebuilt piece by piece inside the museum and which would have housed up to 16 people at a time. It moves to the segregation era from 1876 to 1968, and includes a segregated Southern Railway car that visitors can roam.

In the "Changing America" section is an album cover for Malcolm X's Ballots or Bullets speech and a flyer for a Black Panther Party seminar on civic community programs. Aretha Franklin's R&B staple Respect pipes through speakers.

A lash used to whip slaves is one of among nearly 37,000 artifacts that will eventually fill the museum. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

The shift represents the transitional period of the 1960s for black empowerment, said curator William Pretzer.

"It's an era in which there is a new tone to black liberation. Having achieved the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act; having crushed legal Jim Crow segregation; the question is how much more does freedom in the United States mean?"

Curator speaks to CBC's Paul Hunter about cultural and historical significance of museum collection 0:33

The uglier past is never far. 

The museum is connected by ramps from one level to the next, "so you move through slavery and you go into the segregation era, but you can still look down and see that slave cabin down below," Uithol said. 

A podium statue showing American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics raising their fists in silent protest at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

Higher up, natural light from the windows begins to flood in.

"So the oppression lifts as you go up, and as the story changes as you get more into the cultural galleries."

Slave shackles displayed next to a statue of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. The display case says Jefferson 'understood that enslaved African-Americans produced his wealth and provided him the leisure to read, write and govern.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Escalators on the ground level lead to exhibits celebrating black athletes and including Muhammad Ali's boxing robe and the racket belonging to Althea Gibson, the first black woman to win a Grand Slam tennis event. The fourth floor features Chuck Berry's red Cadillac, Michael Jackson's Victory Tour fedora and a 1987 Public Enemy boom box.

From the outside, the building, wrapped in intricate metalwork and designed to resemble a West African corona, marks an assertive presence in the middle of the National Mall, with the Washington Monument to the south.

Cracked boxing gloves belonging to Joe Louis are on display in the sports gallery at the museum. Other items in the section include the uneven-bar grips used by gymnast Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics and Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers baseball jersey. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

The 19th Smithsonian museum was the first to be built without a pre-existing collection, with all of its items relying on donors.

David Adjaye, the British-Ghanaian lead designer for the museum, found architectural inspiration from Yoruba tribal shrines in West Africa for the building's triumphant silhouette.

Sunlight filters through the filigree metal patterns wrapped around the museum, a nod to the intricate ironwork of enslaved craftsmen in South Carolina and Louisiana. Although the museum's below-ground exhibits are dark, the cultural galleries are brighter and feel less oppressive. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"It's a gesture going into the air, the V-shape pointing towards the sky, which is very uplifting to us as human beings," he said.

Bunch, the museum director, spoke during a press preview about the journey it took for the space to become a reality, born out of a proposal in 1915 for a monument to black Civil War veterans. 

A black minstrel figurine shows an African-American stereotype and stock character. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

While there was congressional approval over the decades, funding for a museum dedicated to black Americans fell through, or legislation was blocked. Hope was revived in 2003, after President George W. Bush signed legislation to establish the museum and when Bunch was named founding director two years later.

"Eleven years ago, we really did start this as a staff of two," Bunch said. "All we knew was that we had a vision — a vision that we wanted all who encountered the museum to remember … the rich history of the African-American."

The museum's lead designer, the British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, says the upward-reaching, tiered corona form of the building was inspired by West African shrines. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Obama spoke at the museum's dedication ceremony on Saturday, a particularly meaningful send-off for the first black president of the United States.

"We are not a burden on America or a stain on America," he said. "We are America. That's what this museum explains. The fact that our stories have shaped every corner of our culture, the struggles for freedom that took place made our constitution a real and living document."

U.S. president officially opens the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 29:30

The venue tweeted photos and video of some of the high-profile people in attendance, including Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Stevie Wonder, Robert De Niro and Angela Bassett.

"What this museum does is show us that even in the face of oppression, even in the face of unimaginable difficulty, America has moved forward," said Obama during his speech. "And so this museum provides context for the debates of our times."

Museum attendance is expected to smash Smithsonian records, with 100,000 people already signed on as members. Organizers are issuing timed entry passes, which are free, but they won't be made available until November. Weekend tickets are gone through December.

A concert poster promoting a James Brown show at D.C.'s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the 19th museum in the Smithsonian family. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

"The best history helps us recognize the mistakes that we've made," said Obama.

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong