Inside the the National Museum of African American History and Culture
In less than two weeks, the long-awaited Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture will open its doors to the public.
When it opens, it will be the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of the African-American experience.
The 400,000-square-foot museum -- the 19th of the Smithsonian Institutions -- stands near the Washington Monument.
The vast bronze structure is distinctly conspicuous, situated in a sea of white marble buildings that inhabit the National Mall.
“We think it suggests the fact that this is a distinctive institution and museum -- different from the others on the mall,” said Phil Freelon, the museum's architect of record.
The metal screening that surrounds the museum is called the “Corona.” Each customized, aluminum panel reflects the design of iron work by enslaved craftsmen. The design is both symbolic and functional.
“The facade changes its appearance over time depending on the time of day, the season of the year,” said Freelon. “We're happy there's sort of an evolving perception of how the building appears to people passing by, to people entering it. All of that is intentional.”
The museum's basic structure takes its inspiration from a work by the Nigerian sculptor Olowe of Ise.
“His sculptures were used in King's homes,” said curator Joanne Hyppolite. “The architects -- David Adjaye and the rest of the team -- thought that having a piece from Africa would be a great inspiration for the actual museum itself.”
The museum plunges five stories underground – a design feature that proved to be a construction challenge.
“Once you start digging down onto the site, at 12 feet you hit water,” said Robert Anderson, lead architect with the New York-based firm Davis Brody Bond.
“In Washington, D.C. -- much of the western portion of the national mall -- that used to be former swamp land," he said. "The water table is incredibly high here. So we had to essentially build an inside-out bathtub to keep water out of the building. You can imagine the challenges associated with digging down close to 80 feet in basically unstable soil that’s reclaimed swamp.”
As visitors descend into darkness, they encounter an interactive retelling of the history of slavery.
Museum specialist Mary Elliot says it was heartbreaking to know so many stories and not be able to tell them all.
"We had to pick and choose which ones would really illuminate this history and help people wrestle with some of the themes we are talking about,” said Elliot. “How do I tell the story of all these men, women and children who are sold, who are dehumanized, boiled down to property? How do I tell that story in a new way that really touches a person?"
From there, the journey continues through areas of the museum devoted to segregation and the civil rights movement. Located aboveground are displays devoted to African-American contributions to sports, journalism, culture, and art.
The museum's "Musical Crossroads" section houses Parliament Funkadelic’s Mothership, the 1973 candy apple–red convertible once owned by Chuck Berry, and the outfit Marian Anderson wore at the historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
The focus on black American life even extends to the museum’s cafeteria, called the Sweet Home Café.
Its menu is steeped in traditional black American cuisine, while extending beyond soul food. Carla Hall, co-host of ABC’s The Chew, serves as a consulting chef for the museum.
The museum's very existence is described as a "miracle" by those who were involved in its creation.
"The notion of this museum really begins with Civil War soldiers – African Americans who realize they are not getting attention as the North and South come together 50 years after the war," said the museum's director Lonnie Bunch. "So it really got people thinking that there needed to be a way to honor the African-American experience. They tried for a generation. Ultimately, a bipartisan effort led to this moment."
President George W. Bush signed legislation to create the museum in 2003. Congress designated $270 million -- half of what it would cost to build it. Over $300 million more came through fundraising efforts.
The grand opening of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture is slated for a Sept. 24 opening, when President Obama will cut the ribbon before an estimated crowd of 20,000 onlookers."