I know that I said I wouldn’t be posting again until I moved to Tucson, and I’m still in DC but…. The Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens today and I had to opportunity to attend a preview Sunday. So I want to share some thoughts and photos with you. The visit was courtesy of fellow History Tourist, Patricia. Patricia is a Smithsonian employee and they were invited to see the museum before it opened. And bring a friend.
The museum wasn’t quite finished yet. We saw it about 80% done.
The museum covers “history” and “culture” and much has been made of the fact that the “history” is exhibited in a dark cavern below and “culture” is in the large, bright spaces above. Oprah’s dress gets more space and light than a bill-of-sale for a slave.
“That is largely because” said a recent article in the Washington Post, “this museum, like most well-funded museums that aim at a popular audience today, is so dependent on multimedia that it can’t help but slight history before the age of film and recorded sound….This kind of museum design is premised on an assumption that museums are in the remedial history-teaching business, compensating for a failure of education, and a broad social lack of interest in the longer arc of the past.”
Part of my mission, in visiting the museum, was to see if the reviewer was correct.
In my (very humble) opinion, he wasn’t.
The building itself has been quite controversial. It’s large, bronze “corona”: a three-tiered form that takes its inspiration from Yoruba sculpture. The filigreed exterior is meant to evoke the New Orleans and Charleston wrought iron balconies created by enslaved artisans.
It’s on the southern end of the Smithsonian Mall, within eyesight of the monuments. It’s modern and bold and traditionalists. who think everything in DC should be marble and neoclassical, hate it.
There are six floors of exhibit space in the museum: three featuring history and three featuring culture. History’s three are underground and since the exhibits are chronological, we were encouraged to start at the bottom and work our way up.
It turned out that history was underground for a reason: the exhibit design was an allegory. The pre-Civil Rights eras were presented in a dungeon-like dark and oppressive space. But as we worked our way through history, we spiraled up the building and eventually came into the light … and Oprah’s dress.
Yes, much of the exhibits covered basic history. But it wasn’t remedial history making up for a poor educational system. For one thing, not all museum visitors are American, and a Smithsonian museum caters to an international constituency, many who may know very little about American history. For another, it’s basic history illustrated by the most iconic primary sources.
Example: I’ve seen this drawing of captives on a slave ship dozens of times but never really thought about where it came from. It came from a circa 1790 book called Observations Upon Negro Slavery by abolitionist Charles Crawford, which is on display in the museum. The purpose of the book was to point out the inhumanity of slavery.
During the Revolution, the British offered freedom to enslaved people who joined their cause. Above is a British pass for the bearer — “a Negro” — to “go to Nova-Scotia, or wherever else he may think proper.” The sword is Revolutionary War era.
This is an amazing story: Belinda, born in Africa, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in 1783 for her freedom. Her petition detailed her kidnapping from Africa and her experiences as a slave. Nothing more than what is on the petition is known about Belinda. But the legislature granted her freedom and a pension. It provides “one of the earliest records of reparation for enslavement,” says the exhibit label.
The Washington Post article goes on to say, “Nuance is conveyed by real people, telling their stories in their own words. In a digital age, this is inevitably more gripping than studying a bill of sale for human chattel or a rendering of a slave ship.”
Clearly Philip Kennicott, the author of the article, is not a kindred spirit. Because, for me, it’s the bill of sale for a slave or a rendering of two hundred people shackled side-by-side in the dark on the bottom of a ship, where we know they’ll remain for several months, that’s the gripping, heart-stopper.
Maybe I’m just too old to understand the nuances of the digital age.
My come-to-Jesus moment in the museum was at the exhibit on this man. I have — and I’m sure you have — seen this photo dozens of times before. It’s the iconic illustration of the cruelty of slavery and the original is at the museum. But did you know the identify of this person? I didn’t. He’s Private Gordon, who ran away in March 1863, after he received this beating, and made his way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he enlisted in the army. The photo was taken during his army medical exam.
I came out of the netherworld of early American history to look for the controversial Bill Cosby objects. I didn’t see them or the coffin of Emmitt Till, the 14 year old who was lynched in 1955, accused of flirting with a white woman. There’s been some controversy about displaying the coffin, too. The museum was wall-to-wall people and the exhibits were hard to see, so either I just missed them or they hadn’t been mounted yet.
Here’s the only photo I took in the 20th century history area: the Spirit of Tuskegee. It’s a Stearman PT-13D that was used to train WWII’s African American pilots, known as the Tuskeegee Airmen.
You’ll need free but timed tickets to see the museum, and they’re pretty much booked through the rest of the year. A Post article said that scalpers were selling the free tickets for $100 each on Craigslist.