A CENTURY IN THE MAKING, when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opens on Sept. 24, nearly the entire fourth floor will be devoted to visual art.
Exhibitions throughout the rest of the museum will examine in depth the experiences of African Americans, stories central to the American narrative explored through the lens of history, community and culture with objects and artifacts. The art galleries—part of the cultural component—are designed to be a unique space, essentially serving as an art museum within the cultural history museum, where work by African American artists including Felrath Hines, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Kara Walker, will be presented.
“We think having a traditional art gallery will be a pleasant surprise,” says NMAAHC curator Tuliza Fleming.
Fleming spoke on a Feb. 6 panel about the forthcoming African American museum at the College Art Association (CAA) conference in Washington, D.C.
“Behind the Veil: An Inside Look at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture,” was moderated by Jacqueline Francis, an associate professor at the California College of the Arts and co-founder of the Association of Critical Race Art History, an affiliated society of CAA that sponsored the session.
The panel featured five curators from NMAAHC: Jacqueline Serwer, Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Michelle Gates Moresi, Aaron Bryant and Fleming. The curators gave a comprehensive overview of the museum, explaining its mission and programming in detail. Although, the room could accommodate more than 200 people, only about 50 were in attendance. For those who did turn out, it was a revealing session.
NMAAHC is in the last stretch of construction at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street. Sited on five acres in the shadow of the Washington Monument, it occupies the last available space on the National Mall.
The architectural team is composed of four firms—The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond, and the SmithGroup. Phillip Freelon is charged with ensuring the museum design adheres to the programming vision and British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye is the lead designer.
The building is 400,000 square feet with five levels above ground and four below, specifications ensuring its profile does not rise too high and impose on the majesty of greenscape surrounding it.
The museum’s unique design is inspired by the form of the tiered corona found in Nigerian sculpture, the symbolism of uplift, and concept of the porch, which Wilkinson said is “a key element of design across different diasporic communities from West Africa, through Haiti and Louisiana.,” said Curator Michelle Joan Wilkinson.
She said the bronze filigree panels that clad the three-tier corona that defines the museum’s exterior directly reference ornamental ironwork created by free and enslaved black craftsman from New Orleans.
In addition to exhibition galleries, the museum also features a theater, education center, shop and café, as well as staff offices.
Wilkinson concluded her remarks by sharing the museum’s new tagline: “A People’s Journey, a Nation’s Story.”
PROGRAMMING & COLLECTING
Moresi, supervisory curator of museum collections at NMAAHC, reviewed the museum’s goals and talked a bit about assembling the collection.
She said, “It is our job at the museum to present the history and stories of African Americans in a way that visitors can relate to and begin to understand. That is the driving philosophy set for us by the director [Lonnie Bunch], as well as our Scholarly Advisory Committee.”
Moresi explained that the vision for NMAAHC is based on four pillars:
- Providing an opportunity to discover, explore and revel in African American history and culture and all its nuances and complexities
- Emphasizing the centrality of the African American experience to the American story
- Telling the African American story in an international context
- Serving as a place of dialogue and engaging new audiences; collaboration with other museums and educational institutions; and reconciliation
The museum houses 11 galleries. The history exhibitions include “Slavery and Freedom” (covering the period up to Reconstruction); “Defining Freedom, Defending Freedom” (the segregation era, from post-reconstruction through the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act); and “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” The community floor features “Double Victory” (military); “Leveling the Playing Field (sports); “Power of Place” (regionalism); and “Making a Way Out of No Way” (formal and informal institutions and organizations). There are four cultural galleries: “Musical Crossroads”; “Visual Arts Gallery”; “Cultural Expressions” (African American and African diasporic culture); and “Taking the Stage” (theater, film and television).
Thus far, the museum has assembled a collection of more than 34,000 items including monumental installations such as a slave cabin from a plantation on Edisto Island, S.C.; “Spirit of Tuskegee,” a Stearman bi-plane used to train Tuskegee Airmen; a guard shack from Anglola Prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary; a segregation-era Southern railway car; Funk legend George Clinton’s Mothership; and the contents of one of President Obama’s 2008 campaign offices in Northern Virginia.
The museum will finally open its doors on Sept. 24, 2016.
The week long celebration will kick off with a dedication ceremony and ribbon-cutting with President Obama. The schedule includes extended visiting hours; a three-day festival of music, literature, dance and film; and events co-hosted by museums in the United States and Africa.
“In a few short months visitors will walk through the doors of the museum and see that it is a place for all people. We are prepared to offer exhibitions and programs to unite and capture the attention of millions of people worldwide,” said Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, when the opening date was announced.
“It will be a place for healing and reconciliation, a place where everyone can explore the story of America through the lens of the African American experience.”