The National Museum of African American History & Culture is one of those museums that pulls you in and then keeps pulling you in. From the outside, it stands out in a strikingly different manner from all of the other museums, monuments, and buildings on the National Mall, creating a welcome visual focal point. Entering the building feels like going into a sacred space. The museum is chock full of artifacts that bring stories to life. It was one of my favorite museum experiences ever (and I’ve had a lot). Many people have written about why this museum is important and how it came to be. Below I share my experience of visiting the museum. It did not disappoint on a professional or personal level and all of the hype around the museum is well deserved.
Because of timing and ticketing reasons, we only saw one part of the museum. Upon entering, we picked up a map which advised that in order to make the most of your time you should start at the top and work your way down. We didn’t realize until later that this meant we would miss the museum’s main history exhibits which trace African American history from slavery through the present. These history exhibits are all below ground (where 60% of the museum lies). Where we began was with the museum’s culture exhibits which are located off of a central area called Cultural Expressions. This circular area is filled with immersive exhibits around the perimeter, seating in the middle, and large screens encircling overhead with images, video and quotes about various forms of cultural expression including writing, music, dance, sport, film, etc. featuring famous or trailblazing African Americans in their respective fields. We began with the exhibit about music.
The music exhibit was full of information about and artifacts relating to African American musicians and singers who have made lasting cultural impressions on American popular and musical culture. Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz, Whitney Houston, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and more well-known artists were represented, but so were lesser-known names and contributions to American music including black country and bluegrass artists. The exhibit included an interactive “record store” room in which you could flip through “albums” and learn more about artists and select music on a digital touch screen. It was a rich visual experience with so much to take in.
The next exhibit was all about acting, from the stage to the screen. The final exhibit we toured in full was about sports. All of these exhibits showcased the cultural contributions of African Americans to American culture, highlighting inequalities overcome, civil rights advanced, and culture enriched. Black history and culture is American history and culture and these exhibits make that clear by focusing on how African Americans have been a part of it all by focusing on these overarching categories of music, film, sport, relatable categories for people of all backgrounds.
We then moved to the interactive educational area which has a large digital, interactive kiosk of touch screens from which you can browse the museum’s collection. You can select items based on a wide variety of intersectional topics. This was a truly impressive digital resource that had information on so many artifacts. It was very immersive as well with audio and video components to add to the experience.
I can’t wait to return to this museum and tour more of the exhibits. The importance of this museum for celebrating African American history and culture, for educating the public on the history of systemic racism, for educating the public on the history of black Americans, and for showcasing the important role African Americans have and continue to play in the development of culture in America cannot be overstated. I highly recommend visiting multiple times, taking your time, and taking it all in.
The NMAAHC opened in 2016 to lots of interest, high visitation, and big impact on not only the world of public history & museums, but on so many individuals. I had heard so much good buzz about the museum but hadn’t been able to visit yet so it was high priority on our list, but we missed our opportunity to get advance tickets and at the time, which was during peak season, we could walk-in without advance tickets after 1pm which is what we did. In the off peak season you can walk-in without advance tickets starting at 10am.
The NMAAHC has changed its ticketing policy already in its 3 years and likely will continue to adjust so if you plan to go, check out their website for the latest. We lucked out on being able to easily get in without waiting, but I would still recommend the advance ticketing system so you can get in in the morning and have more time to view the museum. I have to go back as we only grazed the surface of this museum’s impressive exhibits!
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Beth Nevarez is a public historian and museum professional. She currently works as an independent consultant for museums in Eastern North Carolina, working on collections projects, exhibits, and outreach. She has her master’s degree in public history from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.