The exterior of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC draws your eye like a waterfall or a Gothic cathedral. As you round the corner onto Constitution Avenue, you see a mound of green rising up, topped with a three-tiered structure wrapped in metal: 3,600 bronze-covered aluminium panels filigreed with a geometric, plant-like pattern. I visited on a bright September day, and the building looked both dark and shimmering against the blue sky.
The museum was designed by David Adjaye, who is Anglo-Ghanaian, and a team which included Phil Freelon and the late Max Bond, two African-American architects. It is part of the American Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest research and museum complex, comprising nine government-run research centres and 19 museums. The idea for a museum of African-American history was first proposed more than 100 years ago by black veterans of the American civil war. The project was not ordered by Congress until 2003. The competition to find an architect only closed in 2009, and construction began in 2012. “A long time coming,” said President Obama at the groundbreaking ceremony. Last weekend he opened the museum to the public.
Adjaye was both a controversial and a natural choice. On the one hand, many felt that the project should have been led by an African American. On the other, there are few architects as steeped as Adjaye in the history of African design. When he founded his own firm in 2000, he embarked on a tour of 51 African countries to absorb the continent’s heritage. The research resulted in a book, “African Metropolitan Architecture”, and projects in Lagos and Johannesburg. The three-tiered shape of his Smithsonian museum is derived from Yoruba caryatids, traditional crowned columns. The pattern on the bronze panels is an American detail. It is reminiscent of the ironwork that former slaves made as craftsmen in southern cities like New Orleans. Surrounded by Washington’s white buildings, the dark tone of the bronze is moving in itself. “The external palette gives me chills every time I see it against the backdrop of these other white buildings that were built on the backs of brown people,” a friend told me. For all the building’s grandeur, Adjaye has rejected the palatial civic architecture that surrounds it. The museum has an inviting ground-level porch.
Inside, 60% of the museum is underground. These galleries take you on a historical tour from the origins of slavery to the present day. The first section, “Slavery and Freedom”, begins three levels down where there is no natural light at all. At times this makes the long texts on the wall difficult to read. One woman next to me was getting a friend to read the words to her. But the space itself is often powerfully claustrophobic. This is where we encounter the terrors of the Middle Passage, and the gloomy confines of the slave ship. We are guided through the post-civil-war era and the horrors of reconstruction. There are photographs of lynching, Klu Klux Klan hoods and a segregation-era railway car.
The depths of the museum are dedicated to remembering, and the curators have been meticulous. The names of slave ships and the numbers of slaves on them are etched into metallic walls. A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of a pile of bricks bearing the names of the people he owned. There is a bill of sale for a slave called Polly. But the visitor’s journey to the present day contains wonderful moments where the building opens up. At one point you walk out of a tunnel and up a ramp into a bright, airy hall: slavery is abolished.
The sunny upper floors explore African-American culture and community through subject-specific exhibitions. There is one devoted to music, where you can see Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, costumes designed for Billie Holiday, and a baseball cap with “emancipation” written on the front from Prince’s Jam of the Year tour. Another looks at sports, with a LeBron James basketball jersey and a statue of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics; another at the military, including a civil-war ID tag belonging to a soldier called Qualls Tibbs, and poignant studio portraits of young men and women who fought in the first and second world wars and Vietnam. Even the cafeteria, Sweet Home, offers a history lesson, serving African-American food divided by geographical region: buttermilk chicken from the south, an oyster pan roast from the north, buffalo brisket from the west, cold-smoked chicken from Creole coast.
But more important than the individual objects is the way the curators have been careful to set horror against triumph, each exhibition telling a story that is both terrifying and beautiful. The section on the promise of the civil-rights movement includes glass shards and shotgun shells collected from the site of the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four girls. An exhibition on black style makes room for a display of skin-bleaching products from 2014.
The museum’s designers and curators had a complex task: to construct both a memorial and a celebration. In this they have succeeded resoundingly. As America wrestles with racial divisions and the presidential candidates offer conflicting visions of the kind of country it is, this new institution is a provocative and uplifting achievement.