Arts & Culture

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture: An Emotional Experience


When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016, President Barack Obama led the festivities. At the dedication ceremony, he said, “African American history is not somehow separate from the American story. It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.”

Conceived as an effort to present history in its “unvarnished truth,” the museum also celebrates and documents highlights of African American culture. It was an instant sensation, quickly becoming the hottest ticket in Washington. Even those who have tickets—which are free, as in all National Museums—are warned of long lines, especially at the beginning of the exhibit.

The beginning starts below, in the basement, and it covers the earliest years, from 1619 to 1865, when millions of African people were captured, enslaved and brought to America. People tend to linger there, carefully inspecting the meticulously curated items that document the darkest chapter in our nation’s history. Many of these items, like the irons that men and women wore as they crossed the Atlantic in slave ships, have never been seen before.

The museum’s collection is vast; it takes at least several hours to go through it—and a lot more if you want to linger, as many do. There is a special exhibit, for example, which visitors are warned is troubling, devoted to the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. There is a room for quiet reflection, provided for visitors who may need time to think quietly about the painful exhibits they have just viewed.

Visiting this museum is indeed an emotional experience. No one can fail to be moved by the anguish of the enslaved Africans, whose painful and often fatal trips across the Atlantic are documented. Every American is served well by confronting the truth of the legacy presented here.

Yet the museum is dedicated to both history and culture, and my impression as I moved through the exhibits was that much of the accent was on the positive. This was surprising, since a lot of the initial news coverage focused on the difficult and painful aspects of the museum. There are prominent displays devoted to famous figures we have all heard of, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. There are also numerous historical exhibits about less well-known figures in African American history and culture. Phillis Wheatley, for example, published a book of poetry while enslaved, in 1773. At the time, it was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write. Another display is of items produced by silversmith Peter Bentzon, who was a free man working in Philadelphia during the early 19th century.

Prominent figures in the entertainment arts are celebrated, from Marian Anderson to Chuck Berry, from Hattie McDaniel to Oprah Winfrey (a major contributor to the funding of the museum). Sports figures are also well represented, including the history that accompanied each breakthrough as heroes like Jackie Robinson shattered the color barriers that stood in their way.

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  • AA July 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Thank u Cecilia for the overview- one needs to re visit this museum several times to completely take in all the amazing exhibits.

  • l.gibbons July 6, 2017 at 9:25 am

    i was just there and it is most impressive. It will take days to go through and see everything. i hope I can get back there some time. So much to learn and see.