The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…history is literally present in all that we do. – James Baldwin
Over the last year or so I’ve watched as the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) rose up on the National Mall. From the outside it felt like an inspired decorative container, monolithic from afar but interwoven and detailed from close up. My impression changed once I stepped inside. Clean lines, curved staircases, and the decorative metalwork of the exterior provided an incredible sense of openness, a constant reminder as I traveled from gallery to gallery that this is a museum embedded in the landscape of the core of Washington D.C.
A foundation. A place to start.
And so in trying to frame my first NMAAHC visit I thought about writing a traditional exhibit review —discussing content, display choices, and interpretive design—but that just didn’t feel quite…right. Rather, my first visit felt incredibly emotional. In some ways indescribable, walking through the museum felt like when you peer through new glasses for the first time. Everything seemed clearer, more in tune, more complete.
Perhaps this is because while I am a public historian, much of my historical training has been in Early American history where I spent hours looking at the silences in our historical record and thinking through ways to tell the full story of the American past. But nothing I’d ever seen ever got it quite right, until my visit to the NMAAHC.
I first felt clarity at the top of the History Gallery where piped in classical music* drifted over my senses as a slideshow flipped through photographs of familiar and unfamiliar narratives of the African American past. Then, just to the left, was the recognizable quotation, pulled from the founding document of our nation which stated that all men are created equal. It served as a reminder as I stared down into the galleries below that we, as a nation, have not always treated each other as so. A powerful beginning.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
I spent over four and half hours in the museum on that Thursday afternoon and as I made my way through the winding gallery I found myself moved by unexpected things.
First. The Voice.
I am often reminded of many museum exhibitions that work to be inclusive in their storytelling. There is the main narrative and then featured stories:the Asian story, the Latino story, the African American story. As if one portrait, one excerpt encapsulates the entire narrative. At the NMAAHC there were a multitude of voices through images, videos, quotations, and objects. Each speaking not from the perspective of masters and outsiders but rather from the viewpoint of those whose lives were directly affected. And not all the voices were the same or said the same thing. It’s an important shift, one that, as my friend Kelly said, showed how far we have to go in recasting historical spaces as inclusive. (If you want a sense of this in book form, I recommend picking up the Hemingses of Monticello.)
Specifically, early on in the history galleries, I found myself drawn to the spaces between the objects. It is on these walls that designers and curators chose to reveal source material. Slave ship manifests documenting the number of enslaved that were lost through the Middle Passage, quotes from broadsides of masters trying to sell slaves or track down fugitives. And later still a list of the lynched—human beings whose lives were brutally lost and destroyed. Putting real names to anonymous numbers. Lives to statistics.
Second. Foundations. Building Up.
After disembarking from the elevator I found myself at the bottom of the building where the exhibit began. However, instead of the typical story of Europe and the romantic age of exploration, the exhibit started in Africa. In this section watched as colonialism solidified the slave trade as an economic engine. Then slowly the narrative moved through the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and onward through time until the present. All the while walking up ramps that move us higher up through the basement level. As I said before the voice of the exhibition is clear. We may be learning the past through an African-American lens, but it is still American history.
But what also resonated with me was how, when I walked from the back galleries into the space where the larger objects like the Jim Crow Bus, the Slave Cabin, and the Greensboro Lunch Counter sat, I could see into the exhibit space below. In doing so I saw a confluence of time and space where the designers provided an overt reminder that the place in which I stood in time existed because of the past. That history was quite literally, our foundation to the present.
And this is a theme not relegated to this one exhibition. When I stepped back to look at the museum itself – I was reminded that history is foundational in another sense. Through that collective past we build a family and a community (the next galleries as you travel up through the building) and even further up culture: art, theatre, music, dance. Each layer is a segment of identity, a recognition that we are all sums of distinct and separate parts.
And while I spent far less time on the upper floors, which I hope to make up for in 2017, it was clear how important community and culture was to telling the broader story of the African American past.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Third. A Note on Education.
The Washington Post review of the museum decried the excessive amounts of digital technology in the exhibit, saying at times that the objects were lost amidst the cacophony of panels, voices, and sounds.
I disagree. Where the reviewer saw over-stimulation, I saw an attention to educational styles. Not everyone learns about the past in the same way. This particular design allowed visitors to pick and choose their learning environment – whether it was through a screen or a text panel, or even the simple and difficult practice of looking at the coffin of Emmett Till for the first time.
This is never more clear than at the end of the history exhibition when, amidst the awe and pomp of an Obama presidency visitors are confronted, through flashing news reports, about the very real, very present racial divide. It was a reminder in a visceral way why Black Lives Matter is not a movement born overnight. Having the ability to tell these stories in the present is what makes this museum so important.
I spent my final moments at the exhibition, after slowly spinning about in the central area on the Culture Gallery (see below, it’s great) in the space provided for reflection. Meant to provide tranquility and contemplation this is where I realized why this museum is important to me a thought that is best encapsulated by the final quotation of the History Gallery, a familiar Langston Hughes line:
The NMAAHC is not perfect, there are some logistical things that could be better, but from a historical perspective it is a reminder that we all are a sum of our histories, imperfect as they are. And while no one history is the same or ever will be completely comprehensive, it is a museum that understands how important these histories are to making a better society.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
In case you didn’t know the excerpted poem within this essay is from Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise. A masterpiece this poem is vivid, textured, and honest – much like this museum. Poignant and resonant I could hear the words as I walked through the history gallery.
*In trying to describe how this felt – I kept coming back to one, perhaps, silly example. If you are a Game of Thrones Fan the music felt like the piano composition in the track The Light of the Seven heard at the start the final episode of Season 6.