The Absence of Equality and Seeking the Change: The New National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened on September 24, 2016, in Washington, D.C., in a ceremony led by U.S. President Barack Obama. It is a Smithsonian Institution museum and has over 36,000 objects in its collection. It is a tour de force in covering extremely important, tough, and still often ignored subject areas within public history. It is a cutting edge balancing act in narrating this history and culture, while covering the unimaginable absence of equality, and the hardships in seeking or being the change we seek.



The museum packs in a huge amount of material and covers subject areas such as ‘community, family, the arts, religion, civil rights, slavery and segregation’ (NMAAHC, 2016). It showcases its narrative over five floors of galleries with additional educational and public reception spaces. The lower three floors are in the part of the museum that sits underground on the northern side of the main building. These floors cover the early years and have a mood of tragedy. The upper floors of the museum host cultural and community exhibits and become more uplifting. Floor plans of the displays have been included at the end of this article.



The museum is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., within close proximity of the Washington Monument, and is the 19th museum of the Smitsonian Institution. The museum’s beautiful building was designed by Ghanaian British Lead designer David Adjaye (Adjaje Associates) and lead architect Philip Freelon (The Freelon Group), working together with their architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. Their selection was based on an the 2009 international competition to design and deliver the museum. It makes various references to African heritage in it’s architectural language, materiality and form.

The museum’s website summarises key inspirations for the building’s design as follows:

“From one perspective, the building’s architecture follows classical Greco-Roman form in its use of a base and shaft, topped by a capital or corona. In this case, the corona is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. Moreover, the building’s main entrance is a welcoming porch, which has architectural roots in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora, especially the American South and Caribbean. Finally, by wrapping the entire building in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, Adjaye the architects pays homage to the intricate ironwork that was crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere.” 

When going through the museum, the ironwork lattice that wrappes the building allows the visitor to see the light shine through, and see the outside world. It shows the prospects of being in full light, of hope, freedom, equality, but the lattice never disappears. The lattice remains there, and might feel like a cage, or a screen blocking access to full equality, freedom, to a humanity that comes to its senses. Like the slaves in the hulls of the ‘ships of trade’, freedom appears like an utopia, we see glimpses of light and hope, but as we continue through the museum, through time, the lattice screens the full view again.



The exhibit starts at the lowest level C3 which narrates the story of ‘Slavery and Freedom’ from the year 1400 to 1877. From there it continues to floor C2 about ‘Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation’, covering the period 1876 to 1967. These lowest two floors display of the most disturbing material and messages, after which the narrative continues on floor C1 to ‘A changing America’, providing displays for 1968 and beyond. The floors ingeniously connect together with sloping routes, and while the lowest floor on slavery has a claustrophobic feeling, reflecting the dark interiors of the hulls of the slave ships, after this the floor plans become more open and playful in heights.



Completing these lower three floors the audience arrives back at the concourse level, where the Contemplative Court can be entered. It is a large enclosed room with a central circular waterfall en quotes on the walls. It allows for a reflection on the uncomfortable and difficult truths that were narrated in these first 3 floors. The contemplative court sits right beneath the landscaped plaza, which is actually a roof garden, to the north side of the museum.




The two main exhibition floors on the upper levels cover on L3 the ‘Community Galleries’, and on L4 the ‘Cultural Galleries’. Here you get the feeling that the museum tries to cover everything, and somehow mixes up everything. After the very heavy story of the earlier years, the visitor now is confronted with the uplifting stories of sport, music, military contributions, art, community, etc.

It is hard to switch the mind to these narratives after just having gone through some of the darkest and most depressing moments of history. Like Holland Cotter wrote in The Newark Times, these different narratives are on ‘a fixed collision course’. Or as stated by Susan Glaser in the Plain Dealer, the museum really feels like ‘two museums in one: Its historical exhibits encompasses about 60 percent of the gallery space, while cultural exhibits take up the other 40 percent.’

The content deserves several visits to cover everything, however, a half day or day visit will already leave a lasting impression. Visitors could opt to see parts of the exhibition on separate visits, to create a less unsettling experience, but as Cotter also stated, the visitor just won’t be able to ‘select a comfortable version of history’. The museum’s website also contains a large amount of online material, which gives useful documentation for anyone that plans a visit, and for those that wish to explore its collections without being able to visit the museum itself.



The museum is an impressive achievement. It will have some flaws, but it also certainly feels to me that the museum is an unfinished history. Like other people have said, it is hoped that it can stay fluid as the African American history, as all history, is never finished.

The following images are a photomontage impression and reflection on exploring the narrative and building. It reflects a personal experience, and is non-comprehensive in covering all layers of the museum, it achievements, and possible flaws. It probably shows far over 60 percent the uncomfortable truths, with less images hinting the uplifting parts. That reflects though the personal impact it had, visiting a first time. The use of quotes in the museum, as in many Smithsonian museums, is prominent, and for that reason I have chosen to display here these images with quotes that can be found in the diverse static and moving displays.



“I admit, I am sickened at the purchase of slaves … but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar and rum?” William Cowper, 1788.



“There is no Spaniard who dares to stick his head in the hatch without becoming ill … so great is the stench, the crowding and the misery of the place … Most arrive turned into skeletons.” Alonzo de Sandoval, 1627.



“1562-1807, Great Britain, 3.3 million African captives transported accros the Atlantic to the Americas”


“Ship Name: Vergulde Zon – Country: The Netherlands – Voyage began: 01-22-1703 – Enslaved boarded/survived: 513/379”



“The average life expectancy of a slave on a sugar plantation was 7 years.”

“All men are created equal …

with certain unalienable rights …

whenever any form of government becomes destructive these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” Declaration of Independence, 1776.



“12 out of 18 of the first American Presidents owned slaves.”



“The Compromise of 1850:

The nation was almost equally divided between slave and free states and territories.

United States population: 23,191,876

African American population: 3,638,808

Enslaved population: 3,204,313”



“The Coming of Freedom”



“Built on their backs”


“The scourged back:

I have found a large number of the four hundred [new recruits] examined by me as badly lacerated.” T.W. Mercer, 1863.



“The Hardening of Racial Separation:

It is not the “Jim Crow” car proper that hurts our sensibilities, but the spirit that demanded its creation. It is not our colour or what we ate to-day, but the condition that we arose from that keeps alive what is known as American prejudice.” The Freeman, 1891



“Southern Railway Company, Couch No.1200, 1923. Redesigned as segregated car, 1940.”



“White supremacy:

The Klu Klux Klan grew in influence during the 1920s as numerous politicians openly expressed their support of its ideals.”


“Democracy Abroad, Injustice at Home.”



“The Purpose of Stereotypes:

The images served a common purpose – to justify the mistreatment of African Americans and the logic of segregation. They depicted African Americans as slow-witted, lazy, and untrustworthy, but still loveable and childlike souls who simply needed the oversight of white people to ensure that they did no harm to themselves or others.”



“Stereotypical imaginary enables whites to discount the humanity of African Americans and thus ignore their demands for greater equality.”



“All men are equal …

with certain unalienable rights … ” Declaration of Independence, 1776.


“Though some still insisted that separate was both equal and just”

“We want equal – but with segregation”



“[The Civil Rights Act’s] purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.” Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964.


“Decades of Paradox and Promise”



A Changing America:

“The past is of value only as it aids in understanding the present; and an understanding of the facts of the problem…is the first step toward its solution.” Chicago Commission on Race Relations.



“The struggle for full equality and real justice continues.”





“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or…or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Barack Obama.



Text, video and photography of NMAAHC collections at the museum by Jan Haenraets, unless otherwise stated.

Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada


Useful links:

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

Smithsonian Institution

The National Mall and Memorial Parks, National Park Service

Adjaje Associates

The Freelon Group

The building’s architecture and inspiration (NMAAHC)


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