The routes leading to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. provoke meditations on the histories it serves before visitors step through the door. Upon arriving from the west and north, the Washington Monument rises up behind its new neighbour.
At first glance, these structures appear to be in stark opposition: the white marble of the vertical obelisk pierces the horizontal lines of the museum’s playful bronze coronas, three tiers of nested filigree cladding that change hue depending on the light. The symbolic juxtaposition is even more striking – the monument built to honour America’s slave-owning first president, George Washington, hovers over the museum, which in turn foregrounds the story of the enslaved and their descendants who were integral to the making of the United States and its first president.
The museum is surrounded by structures built by the enslaved. To the southeast sits the Smithsonian Castle. It was designed by James Renwick in the 1840s and was the first museum erected on the National Mall, a park that attracts some 25 million visitors each year and which is often described as “America’s front yard” owing to its green spaces, memorials and free museums. This inaugural Smithsonian, which now administers all 11 museums on the Mall, was built with sandstone quarried by enslaved persons. The White House, only a few blocks north of the NMAAHC, was similarly constructed in the 1790s. In this sense, architecture plays a peculiar role in mediating the history of slavery. As slavery’s most enduring material product, buildings serve as physical reminders of the practice. And yet members of the African-American community expressed a desire for this new building to recognise slavery while not being reducible to it. Finding a way to deliver such a structure on a site located in the shadow of the monument encapsulating America’s paradoxical origins in freedom and slavery was perhaps the most daunting task facing its designers, The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroupJJR.
Although slavery is the first context that struck me when I saw the NMAAHC and the Washington Monument, greater scrutiny allows a view of these structures in which they seem less like adversaries and more like partners engaged in thoughtful conversation. The angle of the three coronas enveloping the museum’s rectangular glass core mirrors the angle of the Washington Monument’s pyramidal point, a choice the building’s lead designer David Adjaye refers to as an act of deference. But the museum also offers passers-by a new perspective on the Washington Monument, whose obelisk shape – often attributed to western classical tradition – actually originated in ancient Egypt. “People really thought Washington’s monument was a Greek column,” Adjaye explains, “but it was Egyptian.” Given that the NMAAHC’s distinctive coronas were modelled on Yoruban statuary, these adjacent structures share not just a shape but a heritage rooted in European, American and African precedents. It is a diasporic story that Adjaye was eager to underscore, using the museum’s design to showcase, he says, “circuits and relationships between forms that might seem different but which are actually interconnected through a mosaic-like understanding of human history.” And yet, even as the museum acknowledges the monument, an energetic tension persists between them. The angular tip of the Washington Monument points skyward, while the museum’s coronas slope down, gesturing not only to the five storeys of galleries below ground, but also the museum’s mission to reorientate visitors’ understanding of American history through the lens of the African-American experience.
The approach from the east or south, although less overtly spectacular, proves just as evocative. The museum appears alongside its immediate neighbour to the east, the National Museum of American History, a McKim, Mead & White-designed building that opened in 1964. Injecting a touch of modernism into the neo-classicism so prominent on the Mall, this institution appears fortress-like, its unyielding exterior obscuring its reflective purpose. The more symbolic facade of the NMAAHC, by contrast, openly testifies to the history it contains. In addition to referencing Yoruban statuary, its monumental coronas evoke the ornate hats worn by black church-going women. Its intricate metalwork calls back to designs forged by 19th-century black artisans in the American South, and the elongated “porch” facing the Washington Monument gestures towards the ways this threshold space, with architectural roots in the Caribbean and Africa, has historically organised the rhythms of black life across the diaspora. While the conversation between the NMAAHC and the Washington Monument appears more assured, the exchange between the National Museum of American History and this deeply referential building feels unresolved – reflective of broader uncertainty as to whether these museums collectively tell one story or two.
The emphasis on black design precedents visible in the museum’s exterior carries over to its holdings, which include objects ranging from a slave cabin to advertisements for black housing developments. But while the collection uses artefacts and testimony to foreground the material richness of African-American history, the building’s architecture carves out negative spaces and casts shadows evoking the absences that also constitute this history. The exterior coronas, for instance, function as a series of ornate screens that deflect as much as they reveal. Michelle Wilkinson, one of the museum’s curators, describes the perforated panels as giving visitors a feeling of being “constantly surrounded by both an exterior and an interior: when you’re in the building and you see the way light plays in the space and the shadows that are created, a sort of duality emerges.”
It is a duality Wilkinson connects to what the black thinker W.E.B. Du Bois famously described in 1901 as African Americans’ distinctive double consciousness – a sense of “twoness” emerging from seeing one’s self through the eyes of a hostile white world. The shadows cast by the coronas on the NMAAHC’s interior spaces fall upon visitors as they move through the higher galleries, unifying the experience of the upper and lower levels. Zena Howard, a principal architect for Perkins+Will – which merged with the Freelon Group in 2014 – and the museum’s project manager explains that “when you’re above ground”, the spectral shadows cast by the filigree “don’t let you forget about the depths below”, referring to the subterranean gallery space that contains some of the most harrowing artefacts in the collection, including shackles small enough for a child and a gnarled whip.
The building’s attention to voids and shadows seems particularly fitting given the erasures that characterise black history. Before emancipation, we have few records relaying the individual stories of enslaved Africans and their descendants beyond names in ledger books. In the age of Jim Crow, moreover, white Southerners burned black bodies and buildings with the hope of leaving no trace. Despite the size of the museum’s collection, the building periodically ushers visitors into open spaces that allow them to leave its exhibits behind for a moment. As when approaching the site, the coronas encourage you to situate the displays in relation to the neighbouring national icons. Throughout the museum visitors will find what Howard refers to as lenses – viewing points carved out from the bronze metalwork – that frame views of the monument and the National Mall.
A below-ground contemplative court encourages reflection on all that the exhibits have presented, and, perhaps, all they cannot. Water falling from the ceiling into a floor-level pool forms a transparent circular wall around the empty centre of the room. In reflecting on the design process, Adjaye foregrounds the attention paid to the negative spaces carved out by the building. “The job of the architecture,” he insists, is not to make forms but “to make powerful and compelling voids”. He describes his approach to this project as one of “excavating, making silence and making space. The building builds on physical facts and it is a physical frame,” he acknowledges. “But at the same time I’m spending a lot of time and energy to dissolve that frame. And to reframe what you think is the reality outside on the mall.” In contrast to what Adjaye calls “the forensic landscape of the mall” where the museum sits, he understands the building as akin to a vitrine – a vessel “transparent and available for all to see”. It was important that the building refer to material touchstones of the past, but “not in a literal way”, he says. “You come close and then it pulls away.”
The design team took similar care with the distinctive exterior colouration. The changing hue of the bronze suggests the failure of any singular colour to represent the black experience. While the building has been described as dark, Howard points out the spectrum of colours it exudes depends on the conditions. “There are moments when the building appears dark,” Howard explains, just as “there are moments in history that are dark”. Alternatively, “there are days when the sun is blazing and the building is lit up and sparkling.” Avoiding a literal interpretation of blackness or a static impression of the history found inside was important to the designers. As Howard insists, “you’ll never see the building in the same way each time you come.”
The journey that resulted in this gleaming bronze building on the National Mall was a long one. The initial push to build a structure in D.C. commemorating African-American contributions to the nation first emerged a hundred years prior. Black veterans of the civil war formed the National Memorial Association in 1915 to advocate the erection of “a permanent monument to the Negro Race” in the nation’s capital. The group called for “a beautiful building” representing “the Negro’s contribution to America in the military service, in art, literature, invention, science, industry, etc”. But the Association insisted that in addition to serving as a repository of black history, the building should also cater to the needs of African Americans moving forward. “We are disposed toward the utilitarian rather than the exclusively aesthetic or reverential,” wrote the group, describing the need for the building to include not only a hall of fame and museum filled with statues and tablets, but also reading rooms, art and music rooms, and an auditorium. The building fulfilling these aspirations a century later features a great deal of what the original Memorial Association envisaged, even if it ultimately tilts more towards the aesthetic and reverential than the utilitarian. As forecasted by the Association’s early design plan, the museum has left open spaces for telling stories that are still unfolding. When I visited, there was an unfinished gallery that will highlight the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as an interactive area where visitors can participate in polls about whether or not they would have rioted in response to historical injustices, or resisted arrest.
The inaugural efforts of the National Memorial Association petered out with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Despite receiving approval from Congress to build a memorial to black servicemen in 1929, the project proved impossible to fund. It was revived in the 1960s and at various points afterwards until Congress finally authorised the NMAAHC in 2003. The historian and curator Lonnie Bunch was appointed its first director in 2005 and commenced the job with a staff of just two, no dedicated collections and an undetermined site. In the process of amassing the museum’s holdings – now totalling around 37,000 objects, largely donated by private citizens – Bunch and his staff went on the road to learn from some of the nearly 200 African-American museums and memorials already in existence across North America, and collected public opinions about what the mission of a national museum of African-American history ought to be in relation to these institutions. As Bunch was firming up the museum’s mission and assembling its collections, the National Mall site was chosen, a decision that read as both a sign of its belatedness but also a symbolic act of national reckoning.
With the prestigious site came a host of building restrictions that The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroupJJR, whose collaborative proposal won a design competition featuring submissions from six teams, had to address. To preserve the sight lines on the National Mall, the building had to be significantly lower than originally intended. The initial plan featured only one underground gallery, Howard explains, yet eventually 60 per cent of the 122,000sqm building would sit below ground level. These constraints ultimately helped to produce a layout reflecting some of the ways in which African-American history has been conceptualised. Above ground are galleries dedicated to community and culture, as well as educational spaces and staff offices. Below ground are the history galleries, winding upward from slavery to the present. Upon entering the museum’s expansive first floor, which Adjaye has referred to as an “urban room for the city”, visitors see light pouring in from all four sides. They are encouraged by staff to take the elevator to the lowest level, the home of the history gallery dedicated to slavery and emancipation. They then curve their way upward through three floors, culminating in A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond, after which they are greeted by natural light spilling down into the underground concourse.
Given the significance of the underground to African-American history – from the cramped holds of ships sailing the Middle Passage slave trade route and the 19th-century Underground Railroad leading enslaved peoples to freedom, to the mission of groups like the Black Panthers in the 1960s, which often had to operate from and for the fringes of American society – the significance of placing the history galleries in these sunken spaces is clear. Some of the bottommost galleries induce feelings of cramped disorientation. Howard, while insisting that the design team was careful not to “prescribe responses to the space”, explains that the slavery galleries were meant to impart a sense of the confusion and constraint accompanying the Middle Passage and other spaces of enslavement. This is balanced by these galleries’ juxtaposition with more open “limitless spaces”, as Howard calls them, that span the entire depth of the underground galleries and house some of the bigger pieces in the museum’s collection. The largest of these objects is a 77-tonne segregation-era railway car that enforced separate seating for white and black patrons. Due to its size, it was lowered into the museum by crane and the building was constructed around it.
Upon exiting the history galleries, visitors ascend to the above-ground sections dedicated to themes of community and culture. At times this progression feels overly triumphalist. The physical experience of rising from dark to light threatens to overdetermine the African-American history as a tale of persistent progress. It is diffcult, moreover, to move through the underground galleries in any other way than the prescribed linear route. During my visit I spent a good deal of time confusedly attempting to circle back to earlier galleries to take a second look at objects that I had failed to process in their entirety the first time around. The separation of history from culture also comes across as constraining. For instance, the joyously noisy and spectacular music gallery on the fourth floor buzzes with sound and light, in jarring contrast to the sections dedicated to slavery – even though we know that sites of enslavement, too, once pulsed with heat and song.
I arrived at the museum with a sense that the building designed to house this history would have a historical story of its own to tell. Those suspicions were confirmed, but what came unexpectedly was the consistent attention within the collections to the history of African-American architecture and building, an aspect of the black experience in the US that is frequently overlooked by historians and architects alike. Artefacts showcasing black building practices appear throughout the museum’s holdings. In the slavery galleries, visitors manoeuvre around the largest object on this level, a slave cabin originally built at the Point of Pines plantation on Edisto Island in South Carolina. Enslaved people not only lived in these cramped huts – commonly called slave pens in the antebellum period – but likely helped build them. The cabin’s interiors are utilitarian and worn, but the whitewash exteriors point to an attempt – either by its inhabitants or overseers – to make it look more like any other home. It offers proof, the curator of this exhibit, Nancy Bercaw, suggests, that despite our inclination to read this cabin in terms of its violent past, its “aesthetics mattered too”.
Located one floor up, but still in close proximity to the Point of Pines cabin, sits what the museum’s curators have called the Freedom House, a two-storey home built by the formerly enslaved Richard Jones in the late 19th century and continuously occupied until the 1970s. Although the Point of Pines cabin resides in the slavery section and the Freedom House belongs to the exhibit focusing on life after emancipation, the visual continuity between these two modest log structures obscures the distance between the status of their inhabitants. One marvels at how such formally similar structures can represent such different moments in American history. Their juxtaposition reminds visitors of the ways the material conditions of slavery continued to shape life after emancipation, even when African-American homes became property rather than mere pens.
On the level above the Freedom House sits a 6.4m guard tower from the infamous Angola prison, the Louisiana State penitentiary known as the “Alacatraz of the South” that was built on plantation land in 1835 and is still in operation today. The prison’s harsh conditions, particularly for African-Americans, became notorious in the 1930s, the period during which this tower was first built. Given the bluntness of its architecture and purpose, it invites less lingering than the slave cabin and Freedom House. In some ways, this seems to be the point. Reflecting on the museum’s efforts to collect structures, curator Paul Gardullo points to the ways artefacts like the Angola tower suggest that “displacement is as important as place” within African-American history. The tower implies that the historical relationship between African-Americans and the built environment is as much about the structures used to contain and surveil them as it is about the structures they built to shield themselves from surveillance. Taken together, these structures – the Point of Pines slave cabin, the Freedom House and the Angola guard tower – form a kind of triptych which, unlike the organisation of much of the rest of the museum, does not tell a triumphal story of ascent, but a more complicated one about confinement recurring throughout African-American history.
It is another piece of architecture that produces one of the most powerful historical reorientations within the museum. Visit the history gallery focused on the Civil Rights Movement and you encounter a long plywood plank mural that was created in Resurrection City, the sprawling encampment built on the National Mall as part of the Poor People’s March on Washington in May to June 1968. Organised by Martin Luther King Jr, the march and occupation were led by Ralph Abernathy after King’s assassination a month prior. Although King delivering his “I Have
a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is one of the most indelible images of the Civil Rights Movement, the curators chose to showcase this lesser-known event, during which thousands of the nation’s impoverished citizens built a shantytown steps away from the site where the museum’s entrance now sits. Displays like these demonstrate that architecture was not just the setting for history and politics within the African-American experience, but integral to their unfolding.
A focus on building and place emerges elsewhere. Not far from the Resurrection mural is a small gallery dedicated to the dual mid-century stories of suburbanisation and intensification of the urban ghetto, a story punctuated by the display of a menacing industrial metal door from a public housing complex in Newark, New Jersey. The “Power of Place” exhibit, located in the above-ground gallery dedicated to community, tells the story of African-American history through six distinct environments that spatially mimic the spaces they conjure. A section dedicated to Oak Blu s, where middle-class black Americans historically summered in Martha’s Vineyard, is decked out in cottage-style panelling and lacy wooden architectural details. The space celebrating hip-hop’s birth in the Bronx, by contrast, features mental fences upon which sits a map outlining the sites where this music first emerged.
In the culture galleries, a small section dedicated to construction showcases artist Jacob Lawrence’s painting of black craftsmen, Builders: Stained Glass Window (2000), next to panels describing Project Row Houses in Houston, an organisation begun in 1993 by the activist Rick Lowe to restore shotgun houses – narrow rectangular homes popular in parts of the American South – turning them into artists’ studios and housing for the underserved. The designers and curators I spoke to all flagged the importance of showcasing practices of building and design given their underrepresentation in how society thinks about African-American history and culture. The architecture on display in the NMAAHC can be understood as examples of both history and culture, the aesthetic and the functional, setting and event. Both the building and the collections allow visitors to see, as Howard puts it, that “we were builders too” – one of the many aspects, she says, that make this project particularly personal for her as an African-American architect in a profession that has not always acknowledged the vibrancy of this tradition. In contrast to this, the museum’s collections demonstrate, as curator Michelle Wilkinson notes, that “building was always there”
as part of the story of African-American life.
When asked about the architectural artefacts, Adjaye remarks: “We forget at our peril that the container is relevant.” In designing a museum that has no fixed colour, weaves itself into its neo-classical context by both acknowledging and overturning the surrounding landscape’s claims to monumentality, and invites you inside only to force you down into its dark depths, Adjaye and his colleagues have conceived a building that does not assert itself as a triumphant monument to African-American progress. Instead, the building’s indeterminacy compels its beholders to question how and why we might draw lines between African-American, American, and African history and culture, underscoring just how much one’s understanding of the world depends on how those lines are drawn. As you leave the museum, after experiencing its abundance of artefacts that could be assembled to tell an almost endless number of stories, the museum’s facade offers itself up once more for assessment. Even as the exterior evokes distinct aspects of African-American history, it also conveys a scepticism about the very enterprise of history as leading to singular and definitive narratives. Walking away, the conversations between the building and its neo-classical neighbours continue to captivate, but it is the tension between the museum’s irreducible architecture and the pressure to interpret and place the objects within it that linger the longest.