When I first learned that my fellowship‘s weeklong, annual symposium would be in Washington, D.C., I immediately began conspiring on how I would land myself a visit to the new Museum of African American History and Culture while I was there. I’ve heard that admission has been rather difficult since its grand opening in 2016. Being that the museum is free to the public and is still very fresh and new, it tends to generate large crowds at the start of each day, making it difficult to gain entry.
When my fellowship notified me that they would be allotting a day’s time for museum visits while in D.C., and would pre-arrange our tickets, I screamed! My dreams were coming true.
I love to travel, I love museums, and I love my African American heritage. I had been plotting on how to get to this museum since I first heard of its conception. Why wouldn’t I be extremely excited?! I am happy to share about my experiences in this enlightening museum so as to help demystify any concerns as well as help others to successfully plan for their future visits.
In case you missed it above, this museum is FREE! All Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. are free to the public, FYI. You can get educated and cultured, all whilst saving your coins. Win-win-win!
Everything about the museum is symbolic, from the inside on out. The shape of the outside of the building was designed to represent the three-tiered crowns of typical Yoruban art from West Africa.
There’s even an exhibit in the Culture Galleries that features a piece of Yoruban art, and explains the symbolism in detail:
Other external symbolisms include:
- The main entrance being a welcoming porch, which has architectural roots across Africa, in the American South, as well as in the Caribbean.
- An ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, paying homage to the intricate ironwork often crafted by enslaved Africans throughout the American South.
- Openness to natural light from the outside, symbolic of the museum’s goal of fostering open dialogue about race, promoting reconciliation and healing.
Let’s get into it! The museum is composed of 7 floors: (Top to bottom)
- L4 — Culture Galleries
- L3 — Community Galleries
- L2 — Explore More!
- L1 — Heritage Hall (Info desk & Museum Store)
- C Concourse — Cafe, theater, and entrance to history galleries
- C1 — A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond
- C2 — Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation (1876-1968)
- C3 — Slavery & Freedom (1400-1877)
The main (and only) entrance from the street will dump you onto the L1 floor. Typically, people will take an escalator down to the C Concourse, then take an elevator down to the C3 floor and work their way up to the L4 floor so as to navigate through the museum in chronological order. However, you are able to move about the various floors as you please.
The C Concourse floors are kind of all connected by ramps, so you gradually walk up/down each of those floors. Keep in mind that there are no restrooms on the C1 or C2 floors, so plan accordingly. For the L levels, you will have to utilize the escalator, stairs, or elevator to move about.
You can move about as you please, but the crowd will most likely work from the bottom (C3) on up. Once you take the escalator down to the C Concourse, you have the option to “time travel” down to C3 floor by way of a gigantic elevator. As you’re gliding downwards, you will see the markings on the wall noting the years in descending order. As you exit the elevator, you are immediately greeted by the Transatlantic Slave Trade exhibit.
The “time machine” down to the bottom floor was very crowded, silent, and somber. The attendant made a loud announcement that we were “traveling” to slavery times and the vibe in the elevator immediately became more tense. When those doors opened, I became very anxious and began to emotionally prepare myself for what I was about to see.
The C3 exhibits were extremely dark and very close in proximity. This, coupled with my recollection of the elevator/”time travel” experience, led me to wonder if these mood-settings were intentional in that they could’ve been analogous to the slaves’ experiences. Hmmmm…
I felt a heaviness in my chest and feet as I moved throughout the slave trade exhibit. But I did notice that as I moved towards the top floor, the moods, illumination, and ambiance became lighter and lighter. (That being said, my apologies for some of these poorly lit pictures! The progression of the lighting may also be intentionally aligned with the museum’s goal of promoting reconciliation and healing.)
This museum is definitely with the times. There are a number of experiential exhibits for you to get your hands (and feet!) on. You can engage in a reflection video booth on the C levels, learn how to step dance, explore your family history through specialized computer systems, and write letters about issues most important to you.
It is also my inkling that the closer you move toward the present, the more interactive you are allowed to be, and the more of a “voice” you have in contributing to the museum. While the reflection booths were present throughout the C levels, visitors are only able to comment on how the exhibits around them have affected them… Whereas on the L levels, visitors are able to engage and connect more, so as to have more “control”.
While you’re there, please be sure to give the museum store a visit! There are loads of cool souvenirs, books, and accessories. I personally copped a magnet for my mom (I do this everywhere I go!), a postcard (for my personal collection), a Zora Neale Hurston book, and a poster of a Malcolm X speech. The book collection is amazing! I wanted to buy them all.
It would be remiss of me to not mention one of my favorite parts of the museum — The Sweet Home Cafe. Whew! Listen…. This stop is a must.
The Sweet Home Cafe acknowledges that African-American culture is not a monolith — Our cuisine varies from region to region. And this is not like any regular old museum or amusement park food that they take out the freezer and pop in the oven. Nope! Pure homemade goodness, I tell you. You can see the awards/positive critiques at the bottom of the menu. Anyway, they have some options for you to choose from as you nourish yourself during your museum visit. You have “The Creole Coast”, “The North States”, “The Agricultural South”, and “The Western Range”; and you can see the more specific menu details above. As evidenced, the prices aren’t too bad either.
In true Floridian fashion, I chose to take a trip back to The Agricultural South!
First of all, let me just say that I am not even a big fried-chicken-eater. It’s not my favorite thing in the world… But I really wanted to taste the mac & cheese and cornbread (two of my favorite foods in the world) so I decided to give the fried chicken a try and …. Let me continue by saying it was probably THE best fried chicken I’ve ever had! (Sorry mom.) SO. FREAKING. GOOD! The macaroni and cheese was baked to perfection! And the cornbread did not disappoint! I actually find myself reminiscing on this meal more than I probably should, LOL! Lastly, it was a great portion size for me; I wasn’t able to finish it so I was able to take a little doggy bag back to my hotel with me.
The good thing about the cafe is that you don’t have to commit to one “region”; you can grab entrees and side items as you please.
Highlights, Reactions, & Reflections
A few of the artifacts and exhibits resonated deeply with me, for one reason or another.
- On C1, there were real shackles recovered from a sunken slave ship that were used to detain enslaved Africans on their voyage to the Americas. I literally got chills and formed goosebumps just looking at them.
- On C2 is the Emmitt Till Memorial which features the casket that he was buried in following his death. The casket was donated to the museum by his family, and they requested that no photos be taken of it. Though I felt very heavy and sorrow throughout some parts of the museum, this was the one exhibit that succeeded in bringing me to tears. Simply emotional.
- On C1 there is a featured photo and explanation of a debutante ball, a southern event in which young women make their formal “debut” into society. This was special to me, because I was in a debutante ball at the age of 17. I have very fond memories of this event.
- Also on C1 is a feature of my great aunt, Dorothy Pittman Hughes. She is a famous feminist activist. You may recognize this well-known picture of her with feminist Gloria Steinem.
- Another cool C1 exhibit is that of the first African-American President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. I can’t believe how long it’s been since he was first elected president, and I can’t believe how those same emotions I felt on November 4, 2008 are emotions that I still feel today.
As a lover of quotes, I appreciated the abundance of powerful and thought-provoking quotes strategically placed throughout the museum. Check out some of my favorites, in no particular order:
Overall, the museum exceeded my expectations. There was a sense of connection and homeyness like no other. The intentionality of the set-up and fostering a hopeful and resilient ambiance is definitely appreciated and provides for a unique, emotional, heart-warming, and inspiring museum visit.
This post is titled “My First Visit” for a reason! The National Museum of African American History and Culture is huge, and due to having browsed all 6 floors in just 4 hours, there is still lots for me to see and explore. It’s definitely one of those museums you have to visit multiple times to experience fully. Not to mention, I still have some more Sweet Home Cafe menu items I’d love to taste!
Have you visited this museum? What were your experiences like? What resonated with you?
Or maybe you are planning your trip to the museum? Let me know if this was helpful for you, or if you have any additional questions or concerns! I’d be happy to offer my insight.