Friday, May 13, 2016

The African American History And Culture Museum Is Simply Stunning
MAY 13, 2016 3:32 PM
A little bit more than four months from opening, a thin film of dust covers everything. Only a handful of exhibits have been installed. Still, it is already clear that the National Museum of African American History and Culture is stunning.

A Smithsonian more than 100 years in the making, it will tell four centuries of history. "There's triumph, and there's also incredible tragedy. To actually honor that is part of what we felt was our responsibility," architect and lead designer David Adjaye told a group of reporters on a media tour yesterday afternoon. "It's been humbling."

Since President Barack Obama attended a musuem groundbreaking in 2012, Washingtonians have watched as the glass building, encased in a three-tiered, bronze-coated structure, rose out of a 60-foot hole on the country's most prime real estate.

The architects refer to the bronze wrap as the "corona" and even from a distance it tells a story—several, in fact. The tiers are inspired by a traditional form of Yoruba sculpture that features a crown on top; they also represent the three distinct parts of the museum. The pattern is a modern representation of intricate works made by enslaved ironworkers in the south. Practically speaking, it also shields the glare and creates dazzling shadows inside the museum.

Though he has been envisioning this in his head for more than a decade, the structure is still capable of surprising Adjaye. "All the time, I find views or angles that I imagined would be there, and they are even better than I expected," he told DCist. "It is astonishing to see the way the light changes completely."

Even on a gray day, even with construction debris clouding the glass, even among a crowd of curators and reporters, the building's power is undeniable.

The visitor experience is meant to begin at the very bottom, three stories under the ground, where the first historical gallery tells the story of the transatlantic slave trade and wends its way up through the Civil War, including a slave cabin built in the early 1800s on Edisto Island, South Carolina. One side of the house looks out on the tale of slavery, the other on freedom.

The next gallery, "Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968," also includes an entire house. This one is a log structure built by free slaves after the Civil War. "It's a symbol of promise, but also of limitations," said curator Paul Gardullo. It prompts visitors to look at them as a pair and ask, "What's the same? What is different?"

The two structures are among the major objects that anchor the exhibits, most of which involved tremendous logistical feats to get them in place. Others include a segregation-era Southern Railway car and a Boeing-Stearman Pt-13D Kaydet that was used at the Tuskegee Institute.

There's still much open space and empty display cases, but the curators describe the theory behind the exhibitions in detail.

After doing extensive research they found first person accounts to accompany major moments like the Emancipation Proclamation. "We're completely contextualizing the story. African Americans were always in dialogue with these issues," said Mary Elliott, a specialist at the museum. Rather than portray Thomas Jefferson as a "demigod," she said, he's represented as someone you could approach.

And instead of listing the day-to-day schedule in the life of a slave, they took care to humanize the real-life people the museum is portraying. "Even in the most inhumane situation, Johnny had aspirations—even if it was just to read," Elliott said.

Regardless of race, "everyone should be able to see themselves in it," Elliott said. “This is an American story told through an African American experience.”

The third historical gallery begins with the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr. and runs up through the Obama presidency, including spotlights on Black Power in the 1970s and the Black Lives Matter Movement of today.

As visitors ascend the ramps, they look back and down on four hundred years of history. And they see, as Gardullo says, that "history isn't just linear. There's progress and oppression, and they move back and forth."

Upon exiting four hundred years of history, visitors can take a break and sit with what they've learned in a "Contemplative Court." Water flows into a pool and light streams in, ensuring it is a "place of rest, a place to reflect," said Derek Ross, the Smithsonian's construction chief.

Nearby is a cafeteria, which will have a themed menu, and across the way is the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey theater. The space is modernist, with warm hues, and a silver replica of the corona adorns the walls.

Above are more galleries and even more light, filtered through the patterns of the bronze work. It is an energetic space to take in the 1,200-pound P Funk Mothership (according to a curator it had previously been retired in George Clinton's house) and Chuck Berry's Cadillac—both of which are currently shielded under tarps.

The third and fourth floors respectively feature "community" and "culture" galleries. Grouped by theme rather than historical period, they highlight things like the contributions of African American athletes, the "power of place," military history, music, visual arts, and entertainment. Within the galleries are a series of openings in the facade, each framing national icons on the Mall and beyond.

"Illuminating this history, to have it memorialized here in a living way, not just about the history, but looking forward to the future is really something special," said Phil Freelon, the lead architect.

Finally, there's the complete view. Ascending to the top, there's a very, very long window that provides a unique panorama—with sites including Arlington; the Lincoln, Jefferson, and MLK memorials; the Capitol; and the White House.

"It is a critical moment when you finish exploring the exhibitions," Adjaye said. "Maybe you look out and see America in a different way."

As the group of journalists turned to head down, security guard Gregory Dixon continued pacing the exhibit. "There's so much about our culture here. I was just reading about Mr. Hercules," Dixon told DCist. "I didn't know our first black chef was a slave." Reassigned from the Hirshhorn two weeks, he's among the very small group of non-curators to see the museum.

"I love it," Dixon said softly.

The museum is set to open on September 24, followed by a week of celebrations.

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