National Museum of African American History and Culture

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National Museum of African American History and Culture
Construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.JPG
The museum under construction in September 2015.
National Museum of African American History and Culture is located in Washington, D.C.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Location in Washington, D.C.
Established December 19, 2003
Location Washington D.C., United States
Coordinates 38°53′28″N 77°01′57″W / 38.891°N 77.0326°W / 38.891; -77.0326
Director Lonnie Bunch

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a Smithsonian Institution museum established in 2003. The museum's building, designed by David Adjaye, is currently under construction on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. Early efforts to establish a federally-owned museum featuring African American history and culture can be traced to 1915, although the modern push for such an organization did not begin until the 1970s. After years of little success, a much more serious legislative push began in 1988 that led to authorization of the museum in 2003. A site was selected in 2006, and a museum design approved in 2009. President Barack Obama helped break ground for the building on February 22, 2012. First concrete was poured in November 2012, and construction will be complete in April 2016.

Smithsonian officials announced that the museum will open on September 24, 2016.[1]


Early efforts[edit]

The concept of a national museum dedicated to African-American history and culture can be traced back to the second decade of the 20th century. In 1915, African-American veterans of the Union Army met in Washington, D.C., for a reunion and parade. Frustrated with the racial discrimination they still faced, the veterans formed a committee to build a memorial to various African-American achievements. Their efforts paid off in 1929, when President Herbert Hoover appointed Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, and 10 others to a commission charged with building a "National Memorial Building" showcasing African-American achievements in the arts and sciences. But Congress did not back the project, and private fundraising also failed. Although proposals for an African-American history and culture museum would be floated in Congress for the next 40 years, none gained more than minimal support.[2]

Proposals for a museum began circulating again in Congress in the early 1970s. In 1981, Congress approved a federal charter for a National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio. The museum, built and funded with private money, opened in 1987. In the early 1980s, Tom Mack (the African-American chairman of Tourmobile, a tourist bus company) founded the National Council of Education and Economic Development (NCEED). Mack's intention was to use the non-profit group to advance his ideas about economic development, education, and the arts in the black community. Emboldened by Congress's action in 1981, Mack began using the NCEED to press for a stand-alone African-American museum in D.C. in 1985.[3] Mack did not collaborate with other black-led cultural foundations that were working to improve the representation of African Americans by Smithsonian and other federal institutions.[4] Mack contacted Representative Mickey Leland about his idea for a national museum focusing on African Americans, and won his support for federal legislation in 1985. Leland sponsored a non-binding resolution (H.R. 666) advocating an African-American museum on the National Mall, which passed the House of Representatives in 1986. The congressional attention motivated the Smithsonian to improve its presentation of African-American history. In 1987, the National Museum of American History sponsored a major exhibit, "Field to Factory," which focused on the black diaspora out of the Deep South in the 1950s.[5]

Rep. Mickey Leland, an early supporter of federal legislation for a black history museum.

"Field to Factory" encouraged Mack to continue pursuing a museum. In 1987 and 1988, NCEED began lining up support among black members of Congress for legislation that would establish an independent African-American national history museum in Washington, D.C. But NCEED ran into opposition from the African American Museum Association (AAMA), an umbrella group that represented small local African-American art, cultural, and history museums across the United States.[6] John Kinard, president of the AAMA and co-founder of the Anacostia Community Museum (which became part of the Smithsonian in 1967), opposed NCEED's effort. Kinard argued that a national museum would consume donor dollars and out-bid local museums for artifacts and trained staff. Kinard and the AAMA instead advocated that Congress establish a $50 million fund to create a national foundation to support local black history museums as a means of mitigating these problems.[7] Others, pointing to the Smithsonian's long history of discrimination against black employees,[a] questioned whether the white-dominated Smithsonian could properly administer an African-American history museum.[8][9][10][b] Lastly, many local African-American museums worried that they would be forced to become adjuncts of the proposed Smithsonian museum. These institutions had fought for decades for political, financial, and academic independence from white-dominated, sometimes racist local governments. Now they feared losing that hard-won independence.[7]

In 1988, Rep. John R. Lewis and Rep. Leland introduced legislation for a stand-alone African-American history museum within the Smithsonian Institution. But the bill faced significant opposition in Congress due to its cost. Supporters of the African-American museum tried to salvage the proposal by suggesting that the Native Indian museum (then moving through Congress) and African-American museum share the same space. But the compromise did not work and the bill died.[11]

Rep. John R. Lewis, who championed the legislation for the museum after Rep. Leland's untimely death in 1989.

Lewis and Leland introduced another bill in 1989.[12] Once more, cost considerations killed the bill. The Smithsonian Institution, however, was moving toward support for a museum. In 1988, an ad hoc group of African-American scholars—most from within the Smithsonian, but some from other museums as well—began debating what an African-American history museum might look like.[13] While the group discussed the issue informally, Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, Jr.[c] publicly suggested in October 1989 that "just a wing" of the National Museum of American History should be devoted to black culture, a pronouncement that generated extensive controversy.[15] The discussions by the ad hoc group prompted the Smithsonian to take a more formal approach to the idea of an African-American heritage museum. In December 1989 the Smithsonian hired nationally respected museum administrator Claudine Brown[d] to conduct a formal study of the museum issue.[16]

Brown's group reported six months later that the Smithsonian should form a high-level advisory board to conduct a more thorough study of the issue. The Brown study was blunt in its discussion of the divisions within the African-American community about the advisability of a stand-alone national museum of African-American culture and history, but also forceful in its advocacy of a national museum of national prominence and national visibility with a broad mandate to document the vast sweep of the African-American experience in the United States. The study was also highly critical of the Smithsonian's ability to adequately represent African-American culture and history within an existing institution, and its willingness to appoint African-American staff to high-ranking positions within the museum.[17]

The Smithsonian formed a 22-member advisory board, chaired by Mary Schmidt Campbell,[e] in May 1990.[18] The creation of the advisory board was an important step for the Smithsonian. There were many on the Smithsonian's Board of Regents who believed that "African-American culture and history" was indefinable and that not enough artifacts and art of national significance could be found to build a museum.[17] On May 6, 1991, after a year of study, the advisory board issued a report in favor of a national museum, and the Smithsonian Board of Regents voted unanimously to support the idea. However, the proposal the regents adopted only called not for a stand-alone institution but a "museum" housed in the East Hall of the existing Arts and Industries Building. The regents also agreed to keep the Anacostia Community Museum a separate facility; to give the new museum its own governing board, independent of existing museums; and to support the proposal for a grant-making program to help local African-American museums build their collections and train their staff.[19] The regents also approved a "collections identification project" to identify donors who might be willing to donate, sell, or loan their items to the proposed new Smithsonian museum.[20]

1990s efforts[edit]

The Smithonian Board of Regents agreed in September 1991 to draft museum legislation,[20] and submitted their bill to Congress in February 1992.[21] The bill was criticized by Mack and others for putting the museum in a building that was too small and old to properly house the intended collection,[22] and despite winning approval in both House and Senate committees the bill died once more. In 1994, Senator Jesse Helms refused to allow the legislation to come to the Senate floor (voicing both fiscal and philosophical concerns) despite bipartisan support.[23]

In 1995, citing funding issues, the Smithsonian abandoned its support for a new museum and instead proposed a new Center for African American History and Culture within organization.[24] The Smithsonian's new Secretary, Ira Michael Heyman, openly questioned the need for "ethnic" museums on the National Mall.[25] Many, including Mary Campbell Schmidt, saw this as a step backward, a characterization Smithsonian officials strongly disputed.[24] To demonstrate its support for African-American history preservation, the Smithsonian held a fundraiser in March 1998 for the new center which raised $100,000.[26][f]

Heymann left the Smithsonian in January 1999.[27] In the meantime, other cities moved forward with major new African-American museums. The city of Detroit opened a $38.4 million, 120,000-square-foot (11,000 m2) Museum of African-American History in 1997,[10] and the city of Cincinnati was raising funds for a $90 million, 157,000-square-foot (14,600 m2) National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (which broke ground in 2002).[28] In 2000, a private group—upset with congressional delays—proposed constructing a $40 million, 400,000-square-foot (37,000 m2) museum on Poplar Point, a site on the Anacostia River across from the Washington Navy Yard.[29]

Passage of federal legislation[edit]

In 2001, Lewis and Representative J. C. Watts re-introduced legislation for a museum in the House of Representatives.[30] Under the leadership of its new Secretary, Lawrence M. Small, the Smithsonian Board of Regents reversed course yet again in June 2001 and agreed to support a stand-alone National Museum of African American History and Culture.[31] The Smithsonian asked Congress to establish a federally-funded study commission. Congress swiftly agreed, and on December 29, President George W. Bush signed legislation establishing a 23-member commission to study the need for a museum, how to raise the funds to build and support it, and where it should be located. At the signing ceremony, the president expressed his opinion that the museum should be located on the National Mall.[32]

The study commission's work took nearly two years, not the anticipated nine months. In November 2002, in anticipation of a positive outcome, the insurance company AFLAC donated $1 million to help build the museum.[33] On April 3, 2003, the study commission released its final report. As expected, the commission said a museum was needed, and recommended an extremely high-level site: A plot of land adjacent to the Capitol Reflecting Pool, bounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues NW and 1st and 3rd Streets NW. The commission ruled out establishing the museum within the Arts & Industries Building, concluding renovations to the structure would be too costly. It considered a site just west of the National Museum of American History and a site on the southwest Washington waterfront, but rejected both.[34] The commission considered whether the museum should have an independent board of trustees (similar to that of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) or a board answerable both to the Smithsonian and independent trustees (similar to that of the National Gallery of Art), but rejected these approaches in favor of a board appointed by and answerable only to the Smithsonian Board of Regents.[35] The commission proposed a 350,000 square-foot museum that would cost $360 million to build. Half the construction funds would come from private money, half from the federal government. Legislation to implement the commission's report was sponsored in the Senate by Sam Brownback and in the house by John R. Lewis.[34]

As Congress considered the legislation, the museum's location became the major sticking point. Various members of the public, Congress, and advocacy groups felt the Capitol Hill site was too prominent and made the National Mall look crowded. Alternative proposed sites included the Liberty Loan Federal Building at 401 14th Street SW and Benjamin Banneker Park at the southern end of L'Enfant Promenade. This controversay threatened to kill the legislation. To save the bill, backers of the museum said in mid-November 2003 that they would abandon their push for the Capitol Hill site.[36] The compromise saved the legislation: The House passed the "National Museum of African American History and Culture Act" (Pub.L. 108–184) on November 19, and the Senate followed suit two days later.[37] The legislation appropriated $17 million for museum planning and a site selection process, and $15 million for educational programs.[38] The educational programs included grants to African-American museums to help them improve their operations and collections; grants to African-American museums for internships and fellowships; scholarships for individuals pursuing careers African-American studies; grants to promote the study of modern-day slavery throughout the world; and grants to help African-American museums build their endowments. The legislation established a committee to select a site, and required it to report its recommendation within 12 months. The site selection committee was limited to studying four sites: The site just west of the National Museum of American History, the Liberty Loan Federal Building site, Banneker Park, and the Arts and Industries Building.[37]

Siting and design competition[edit]

Construction signs at the future site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Construction site - January 20, 2013

On February 8, 2005, with the site selection committee still deliberating, President Bush again endorsed placing the museum on the National Mall.[39]

The site selection committee did not issue its recommendation until January 31, 2006—a full 13 months late. It recommended the site west of the National Museum of American History. The area was part of the Washington Monument grounds, but had been set aside for a museum or other building in the L'Enfant Plan of 1791 and the McMillan Plan of 1902. The United States Department of State originally planned to build its headquarters there in the early 20th century, and the National World War II Memorial Advisory Board had considered the parcel in 1995.[40] On March 15, 2005, the Smithsonian named Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III to be the Director of the National African American Museum of History and Culture.[41]

The National Museum of African American History and Culture Council (the museum's board of trustees) sponsored a competition in 2008 to design a 350,000-square-foot (33,000 m2) building with three stories below-ground and five stories above-ground. The building was limited to the 5-acre (20,000 m2) site chosen by the site selection committee, had to be LEED Gold certified, and had to meet stringent federal security standards. The cost of construction was limited to $500 million ($5,495,363 in 2016 dollars).[42] The competition criteria specified that the winning design had to respect the history and views of the Washington Monument as well as demonstrate an understanding of the African American experience. The winning design was required to reflect optimism, spirituality, and joy, but also acknowledge and incorporate "the dark corners" of the African American experience. The museum design was required to function as a museum, but also be able to host cultural events of various kinds.[43] Hundreds of architects and firms were invited to participate in the design competition. Six firms were chosen as finalists:[44][45]

The design submitted by the Freelon Group/Adjaye Associates/Davis Brody Bond won the design competition.[46] The above-ground floors featured an inverted step pyramid surrounded by a bronze architectural scrim, which reflected a crown used in Yoruban culture.[47]

Under federal law, the National Capital Planning Commission, the United States Commission of Fine Arts, and the D.C. Historic Preservation Commission all have review and approval rights over construction in the metropolitan D.C. area. As the design went through these agencies for approval, it was slightly revised. The building was moved toward the southern boundary of its plot of land, to give a better view of the Washington Monument from Constitution Avenue. The size of the upper floors were shrunk by 17 percent. Although three upper floors were permitted (instead of just two), the ceiling height of each floor was lowered so that the overall height of the building was lowered. The large, box-like first floor was largely eliminated. Added to the entrance on Constitution Avenue were a pond, garden, and bridge, so that visitors would have to "cross over the water" like slaves did when they came to America.[48]

The Smithsonian estimated in February 2012 that museum would to open in 2015.[49] Until then, the museum would occupy a gallery on the second floor of the National Museum of American History.[50]

On June 10, 2013, media magnate Oprah Winfrey donated $12 million to the NMAAHC. This was in addition to the $1 million she donated to the museum in 2007. The Smithsonian said it would name the NMAAHC's 350-seat theater after her.[51] The GM Foundation announced a $1 million to the museum on January 22, 2014, to fund construction of the building and design and install permanent exhibits.[52]

Building design changes[edit]

The design of the architectural scrim which surrounds the building was changed in September 2012. The proposed building itself was a box-like structure. The three-part corona of the building's design was created by a structure only minimally attached to the building. The exterior of this structure, whose frames lean outward to create the corona, consisted of a thin screen or "scrim" perforated by geometrical patterns based on historic iron grilles found in African American communities in Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana.[53] The original design proposed that the scrim be made of bronze, which would have made the museum the only one on the National Mall whose exterior was not made of limestone or marble. Cost issues forced the architects to change this to bronze-painted aluminum in September 2012. The change was approved by the Commission of Fine Arts, but the commissioners criticized the change for lacking the warm, reflective qualities of bronze.[54] Noted architect Witold Rybczynski also criticized the change. "The appeal of bronze is its warm golden sheen and the rich patina that it acquires over time, but uniformly painted surfaces lack these attributes, and over time they don't age, they merely flake. ... At the time of this writing, the African American museum risks compromising its original intention. In architecture, beauty sometimes really is only skin-deep."[54]

The Smithsonian then radically changed the landscaping of the under-construction museum in summer 2013. The original design for the museum planned a wetland with flowing creek, bridges, and native plants in this area. But cost considerations led the agency to completely eliminate it. At first, the Smithsonian proposed a low hedge. It brought this design to the Commission of Fine Arts in April 2013, which rejected it. The Commission expressed "great concern about the possible loss of the symbolic meaning that had been skillfully woven into the design of both the landscape and the building". In July, the Smithsonian replaced the hedge with a low dull black granite wall. The Commission of Fine Arts approved that redesign, and the Smithsonian brought it to the National Capital Planning Commission. As of August 2013, the NCPC was anticipated to approve it.[55]

Debate over the corona's finish continued into 2014 before being resolved. The Commission of Fine Arts repeatedly urged the architects to use bronze for the scrim, as it created a "shimmering, lustrous effect under many lighting conditions" and "conveyed dignity, permanence and beauty".[56] Duranar paint was the first substitute proposed by the architects, but the commission members rejected it, noting that it had a "putty-like appearance under overcast conditions" and visually fell "far short of the beautiful poetic intention promised by the concept design".[56] A second finish, the sprayable metal LuminOre, was rejected by the commission because it was difficult to produce in the high quality needed, and was prone to flaking and discoloration.[56] Electroless plating and anodized aluminum were rejected because they lacked durability. A physical vapor deposition process was involving a nickel-chrome plating was dismissed for not achieving the right color, luster, or warmth. In early 2014, tests were made with polyvinyl difluoride (PVDF). This coating was approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on February 20, 2014,[56] and by the National Capital Planning Commission in April 2014.[57]

Construction of the museum building[edit]

The museum under construction in May 2014.

The museum's groundbreaking ceremony took place on February 22, 2012.[58][59] President Barack Obama and museum director Bunch were among the speakers at the ceremony.[58] Actress Phylicia Rashād was the Master of Ceremonies for the event, which also featured poetry and music by Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson, and the Heritage Signature Chorale.[58]

Clark Construction Group, Smoot Construction, and H.J. Russell & Company won the contract to build the museum. The architectural firm of McKissack & McKissack (which was the first African American-owned architectural firm in the United States) provided project management services on behalf of the Smithsonian, and acted as liaison between the Smithsonian and public utilities and D.C. government agencies.[60]

The NAAMHC became the deepest museum on the National Mall. Excavators dug 80 feet (24 m) below grade to lay the foundations, although the building itself will be only 70 feet (21 m) deep. The museum is located at a low point on the Mall, and groundwater puts 27.78 pounds per square inch (191.5 kPa) on the walls. To compensate, 85 US gallons (320 L) per minute of water were pumped out every day during construction of the foundation and below-grade walls, and a slurry of cement and sand injected into forms to stabilize the site. Lasers continualy monitored the walls during construction for any signs of bulging or movement.[60]

The first concrete for the foundations was poured in November 2012.[61] As the lower levels were completed, cranes installed a segregated railroad passenger car and a guard tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary on November 17, 2013. These items were so large that they could not be dismantled and installed at a later date. Instead, the museum had to be built around them.[61] By late December 2013, construction was just weeks from finishing the five basement levels, and above-ground work was scheduled to begin in late January 2014. At that time, the Smithsonian estimated the museum would be finished in November 2015.[60]

Topping out of the museum occurred in October 2014.[61] That same month, the Smithsonian announced that the National Museum of African American History and Culture had received $162 million in donations toward the $250 million cost of constructing its building. To bolster the fundraising, the Smithsonian said it would contribute a portion of its $1.5 billion capital campaign to help complete the structure.[62]

The entire steel superstructure and all above-ground concrete pouring was complete in January 2015. Glass for the windows and curtain walls began to placed that same month, with glass enclosure of the building complete on April 14, 2015. That same day, first of the structure's 3,600 bronze-colored panels for the building's corona were installed.[61]

A worker was severely injured at the construction site on June 2, 2015, when scaffolding on the roof collapsed on top of him.[63] 35-year-old Ivan Smyntyna was rushed to a local hospital, where he later died.[64]

The 350,000 square feet (33,000 m2) building has a total of 10 stories (five above and five below ground).[60]


In January 2016, the Smithsonian set an opening day of September 24, 2016, for the museum's opening.[65] President Barack Obama will dedicate the museum, which will be followed by a week of special events. The museum will open for 24 hours one day this week to accommodate crowds and visitors.[66]

NMAAHC officials said that construction scaffolding around the exterior of the building should come down in April 2016, at which time some of the more dust-and-humidity resistant artifacts and displays can be installed. Installation of more delicate items will wait until the building's environmental controls have stabilized the interior humidity and removed most of the dust from the air. The museum identified 3,000 items in its collections which will form 11 initial exhibits. More than 130 video and audio installations will be installed as part of these exhibits.[65]

In January 2016, the museum announced the receipt of a $10 million gift from David Rubenstein, CEO of The Carlyle Group and a Smithsonian regent,[67] as well as a $1 million donation from Wells Fargo. [68] As of January 30, 2016, the museum still needed to raise $40 million toward its $270 million construction goal.[65]

Two unique documents, both signed by President Abraham Lincoln, will be loaned to the museum for its opening. These are commemorative copies of the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation, of which only a limited number were printed. Few of these have survived.[69] David Rubenstein purchased both items in 2012.[70]

Pre-Opening Exhibits[edit]

In January 2012, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (which owns Jefferson's home, Monticello) to create a major new exhibit, "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty." The exhibition opened on January 12, 2012, at the National Museum of American History, and closed on October 14, 2012.[71][72] The exhibit received nationwide attention, garnering articles from sources such as the Associated Press, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, the New York Times, United Press International, USA Today, and the Washington Post.[71][73][74][75] The 3,000-square-foot (280 m2) exhibit was created by Rex Ellis (an associate director of the NMAAHC) and Elizabeth Chew (a curator at Monticello). It was accompanied by a companion book, 'Those Who Labor for My Happiness': Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, by Lucia Stanton.[74] NMAAHC director Lonnie Bunch III said that the exhibit explored one way in which slavery might be presented at the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015.[74]

"Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello" also received attention for the striking statue of Jefferson that graced the exhibit entrance. The Smithsonian used a Minolta 3D scanner to create a digital image of a life-size bronze statue of Jefferson which is located at Monticello. RedEye on Demand (a subsidiary of Stratasys) used a fused deposition modeling printer, which laid down tiny layers of molten plastic to slowly build the statue. The statue was "printed" in four sections, which were then put together, detailed, and painted.[76] Smithsonian officials were so pleased with the process that they began laying plans use it to laser image and 3D print a vast number of items in their collection, which they could then share inexpensively with the rest of the world.[75]

Inaugural Exhibitions[edit]

The Smithsonian announced on February 1, 2016, that the inaugural exhibitions at the National Museum of African American History and Culture would consist of the following galleries. The exhibitions were planned and designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates in collaboration with the museum’s curators and historians.

History Galleries[edit]

Slavery and Freedom[edit]

As the centerpiece of the museum, this exhibition explores the complex story of slavery and freedom, a story standing at the core of our national experience. Beginning in the 15th century with the transatlantic slave trade, through the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the exhibition uses personal stories to explore the economic and political legacies of slavery for all Americans. Priceless objects featured include Harriett Tubman’s shawl and hymn book (c. 1876); Nat Turner’s bible (1830s); shackles used for an enslaved child; a slave cabin from Edisto Island, S.C.; a pocket copy of the Emancipation Proclamation read from by soldiers bringing news of freedom to the U.S. Colored Troops; and freedom papers (c. 1852) carried by a former slave, Joseph Trammell. Curator: Nancy Bercaw

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876–1968[edit]

This exhibition takes visitors from the end of Reconstruction through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is rich with history and artifacts that capture the major aspects of the ongoing struggle by the nation in general and African Americans in particular to define and make real the meaning of freedom. The exhibition will illustrate how African Americans not only survived the challenges set before them but crafted an important role for themselves in the nation, and how the nation was changed as a consequence of these struggles. Some of the most powerful artifacts in the museum are located here: Emmett Till’s casket; a dress made by Rosa Parks; a prison tower from Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola; a segregated Southern Railway rail car from the Jim Crow era; the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s lunch-counter stools; and a house (c. 1874) built, owned and lived in by freed slaves in Maryland. Curator: Spencer Crew

A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond[edit]

This section illustrates the impact of African Americans on life in the United States—social, economic, political and cultural—from the death of Martin Luther King Jr. to the second election of President Barack Obama. Subjects include the Black Arts Movement, hip-hop, the Black Panthers, the rise of the black middle class and, more recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This exhibition encompasses several sections focusing on Black Power era of the 1960s and ’70s, Black Studies at universities, racial dynamics in cities and suburbs and the changing role of the black middle class. The year 1968 is seen as a turning point in the modern struggle for freedom and equality with artifacts such as painted plywood panels from Resurrection City, a “Huey Newton, Minister of Defense” poster and handmade banners from the 2008 presidential election.Curators: William Pretzer and Michelle Wilkinson

Culture Galleries[edit]

Musical Crossroads[edit]

This exhibition tells the story of African American music from the arrival of the first Africans to today’s hip-hop. Through its content, the exhibition will be the space where history and culture intermingle and where music serves as the crossroads between musical traditions and stories of cultural and social development. The gallery is organized through stories of musical genres and themes rather than chronologically, covering classical, sacred, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop and more. Among the artifacts in this sound-filled area will be Marian Anderson’s outfit from her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial and a neon sign from Minton’s Playhouse (1938) in Harlem, known as the birthplace of bebop where Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie performed at Monday-night jam sessions. Thomas Dorsey (known as the father of gospel) will be represented by the piano and bench he used at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, where he served as music director for 40 years. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and The Staples Singers are among those who sang at the church. From the modern era, the exhibition will feature Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and Public Enemy, the group that voiced the tenets of black pride and racial awareness. Curator: Dwandalyn Reece

Cultural Expressions[edit]

This exhibition serves as an introduction to the concept of African American and African diaspora culture. It examines style (identity, political expression and attitudes expressed in clothing, dress, hair and jewelry), food and foodways, artistry and creativity through craftsmanship, social dance and gesture, and language. Curator: Joanne Hyppolite

Visual Arts Gallery[edit]

This art exhibition will illustrate the critical role that African American artists played in shaping the history of American art. It will feature seven thematic sections and one changing exhibition gallery. Works will include paintings, sculpture, works on paper, art installations, mixed media, photography and digital media. The history and relevance of each work will be available to visitors through a multimedia platform.Curators: Tuliza Fleming and Jacquelyn Serwer

Community Galleries[edit]

Power of Place[edit]

This exhibition explores the idea of place and region as a crucial component of the African American experience through an interactive multimedia area called the Hometown Hub where visitors will engage with stories about migration and other themes. Surrounding the hub will be 10 case studies of places in the U.S. illustrating the distinct flavor and experience of each. These place studies will contain a mix of diverse stories—well-known and unknown; mainstream and edgy; celebratory and challenging. These include: Chicago (black urban life and home of the Chicago Defender newspaper; Oak Bluffs (leisure in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.); Tulsa, Okla. (Black Wall Street, the story of the riot and rebirth); South Carolina’s low country (a story of life in the rice fields); Greenville, Miss., (images of segregated Mississippi through the lens of photo studio); and Bronx, N.Y. (a story about the birth of hip-hop). Curator: Paul Gardullo

Making a Way Out of No Way[edit]

The stories in this gallery show the ways in which African Americans created possibilities in a world that denied them opportunities. These stories reflect the perseverance, resourcefulness and resilience required by African Americans to survive and thrive in America. Each story presents concrete actions and choices that people made to contest the racial status quo in America challenging visitors to reconsider the notion of freedom as granted to African Americans and to see freedom, along with its privileges and responsibilities, as earned by African Americans. The three main sections include introductory space with five iconic artifacts complimented by multimedia components; the institutional pillars of African American life—education, religion, business, organizations and the press; and a tradition of activism. Among the featured stories will be a Rosenwald School in South Carolina, the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles and Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C.Curators: Michèle Gates Moresi and Kathleen Kendrick

Sports Gallery[edit]

This exhibition will look at the contributions of athletes on and off the field. Because sports were among the first and most high-profile organizations to accept African Americans on relative terms of equality, sports have a unique role in American culture. Types of artifacts on display will include sports equipment; awards, trophies and photos; training logs and playbooks; and posters and flyers. A grip bag and uneven-bar grips used by African American gymnast Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics, a white terrycloth robe worn by Muhammad Ali and the track shoes and gold medals of Carl Lewis are among the artifacts in the museum’s sports collection. Curator: Damion Thomas

Military History Gallery[edit]

The military gallery exhibition will convey a sense of appreciation and respect for the military service of African Americans from the American Revolution to the current war on terrorism. It establishes an understanding that the African American military experience shapes opportunities for the greater community and has profoundly shaped the nation. This exhibition will help visitors understand the African American military experience in three areas: “Struggle for Freedom” focusing on the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War; “Segregated Military,” about the Indian Wars, Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II; and “Stirrings of Change to a Colorblind Military,” examining the Korean and Vietnam wars and today’s war on terrorism. Artifacts include Civil War badges, weapons and photographs, Flag of the 9th Regiment U.S. Colored Volunteers, a WWI Croix de Guerre medal awarded to U.S. soldier Lawrence McVey and various Tuskegee Airmen materials. Guest Curator: Krewasky Salter

Museum collection[edit]

The Smithsonian Institution listed the number of items in the museum collection in 2012 as either more than 18,000 pieces[77] or more than 25,000 pieces.[78] CBS News reported in May 2015 that the collection size had grown to 33,000 objects.[79]

Items obtained by the museum initially were received, conserved, and stored at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. Dozens of permanent curatorial staff and temporary contractors accessed the items, repaired them, and conserved them in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Reneé Anderson, the NMAAHC's head of collections, oversaw the effort. After artifacts were selected for display, graphics and labels for each item were manufactured. Display cases for each item were also purchases, and exhibiting mounts or specially-designed cases handcrafted for particularly fragile, important, or unusually-sized objects. Museum officials said all artifacts and displays will be moved into the new museum in the summer of 2016, along with the museum's 175 full-time employees.[65]

As of January 2016, the more notable items in the collection included:

Web presence[edit]

In 2007, the National Museum of African American History and Culture became the first major museum to open on the Web before completing a physical structure. The Web site included the museum's first exhibit, mounted in New York City.[100] The site was also designed to encourage collaboration between scholars and the public. The main feature of the Web-based initiative was the Memory Book application, which allowed individuals to contribute to the Web site pictures, a story, or an audio application to spotlight unique experiences in African-American culture.[101]


  1. ^ As late as 1989, the Smithsonian was still refusing to hire blacks for important jobs as curators, researchers, and restorers.[8]
  2. ^ A 1989 internal report by the Smithsonian's cultural equity committee released in January 1989 bluntly observed that the Smithsonian had a "shocking absence of minorities in senior-level administrative and professional positions."[11]
  3. ^ The Secretary is the highest-ranking official at the Smithsonian.[14]
  4. ^ Brown was assistant director for government and community relations at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.[16]
  5. ^ At the time, Campbell was the commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City, and the highest-ranking African-American public arts administrator in the United States.[18]
  6. ^ The new center was housed at the Anacostia Community Museum.[26]
  7. ^ The Barnett-Aden art collection documented African American culture, history, and lifestyles from 1800 to 1972. All the works in the collection are by African Americans. The collection was created by Dr. James V. Herring, a professor of art at Howard University, and Alonzo J. Aden, the first curator of Howard University's Gallery of Art.[93] Aden founded the Barnett-Aden Gallery (named for his mother, Naomi Barnett Aden)[94] in October 1943,[95] and together he and Herring built the collection.[93] Aden died suddenly on October 13, 1961,[96] and Herring on May 29, 1969.[97] The collection was broken up into three pieces, although nearly all of it was left to Aden's friend, Adolphus Ealey.[98] The National Museum of African American Art in Florida purchased Ealey's portion in 1989, and Johnson acquired the collection in 1997 after the museum went bankrupt.[93]
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External links[edit]