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The National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture finally opens its doors today in Washington D.C. It is not a black museum. This is a museum that uses one culture to understand what it means to be an American. It stands on the last available plot on the Mall and designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. It includes 12 inaugural exhibitions and close to 37,000 artifacts, but only 3,000 will be on display.
The building is a glass cube sheathed in three broad overlapping aluminum bands coated with bronze. Adjaye and his partner, Philip Freelon, call this outer cladding a “corona”, a reference to the beaded crowns characteristic of Yoruba art from West Africa. The corona is decorated with a kind of lattice, a stylized version of the filigree ironwork made by slaves in New Orleans and South Carolina. The aluminum bands open as they ascend, trace their angles upward, and they might be arms raised in joy.
The meaning of a museum is determined by acts of interpretation, and artifacts cannot speak for themselves. It’s natural to see the museum’s opening as part of a continuum that began is the nineteen-sixties and seventies with the advent of black-studies programs or even earlier with the work of Carter G. Woodson, an author and scholar who was the son of slaves, in other words, as part of the history of black history.
Here are 10 must-see artifacts featured in the inaugural exhibit.
Rosa Park’s Dress: This is the dress Civil Rights activist Rosa Park was sewing before she was arrested for not giving up her seat on a segregated bus on December 1, 1955.
Michael Jackson’s Fedora: The black fur fedora with a gold metal buckle was worn by Jackson during his Victory Tour. The fedora is featured in the Musical Crossroads exhibition on the 4th floor. Musical Crossroads organizes the intersection of history and culture, grouping stories of musical genres and themes.
Angola Prison Guard Tower: It rests on the bottom level of the museum and is one of the two items the museum was built around. Used by prison guards to watch prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The prison tower stands nearly 21-feet-tall and 14-feet-wide. Angola Prison, one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the nation, opened in 1901 and was built on former slave land.
Segregation-era Southern Railway Car: The 77-ton, 44-seat segregation-era railway, which serviced Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida between 1940 and 1960. This artifact is part of the Segregation Gallery that focuses on the years 1876 to 1968.Muhammad Ali Headgear: It was worn by the boxing legend at the 5th Street Gym in Miami and is located in the ports exhibition as part of the Communities Gallery. During his time in Miami in the 1960’s, Ali converted to Islam and changed his name.
Hope School Desk: School desks from the Hope School, a Rosenwald school in South Carolina, can be found on the third floor in the Community Gallery “Making a Way Out of No Way”. According to the museum, the Hope School was one of more than 5,000 rural schools supported by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. This exhibition reflects stories of black’s perseverance, resourcefulness, and resilience.
Nat Turner’s Bible: Turner was a slave and minister who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. It can be seen in the History Gallery “Slavery and Freedom”. It is thought that Turner was holding this bible when he was captured two months after the rebellion.
President Obama Hand-painted Banner for Obama Presidential Campaign 2008: Hand-painted in New Haven, Connecticut, this banner is one of the artifacts honoring our nation’s first black president and his legacy.
1968 Olympic Warm-up Suit Worn by Tommie Smith: Upon entering the Sports Gallery, visitors are greeted by a statue from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the American National Anthem, making a political statement during the medal ceremony to bring attention to the inequality in the U.S. The 1968 Olympic Warm up suit worn by Smith is on display to honor the contributions of African-American athletes in sports.
Chuck Berry’s Cadillac: The red convertible Cadillac is part of his personal fleet and was driven during the filming of “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll”, a 1987 documentary that chronicles two 1986 concerts celebrating his 60th birthday.
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture might be the most successful modernist building design on the Mall so far. This is partly because of its unashamed approach to symbolism. Touches like the corona’s outer lattice serve as a reminder of the human work that has gone into the making of America.
Sources: newyorker.com, abcnews.go.com