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The National Museum of African American History and Culture chronicles America’s journey toward enshrining freedom, equality and democracy for all citizens. The museum houses a collection of more than 37,000 pieces related to a variety of areas, including slavery, segregation and civil rights as well as family, religion and the performing arts.
The idea for a museum dedicated to African Americans began as early as 1915. Congress passed the authorization bill in 2003, and a site was selected on the National Mall three years later. The Freelon Group/Adjaye Associates/Davis Brody Bond consortium won the design competition for a 350,000-square-foot building that conceptualized the unique experience of blacks in America. The exterior design of the above-ground floors features an inverted-step pyramid with bronze-colored architectural scrim. The museum’s appearance reflects the crown used by the Yoruba people, one of the largest ethnolinguistic groups in Africa. The segregated railroad car and a guard tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary on exhibit inside could not be dismantled and reassembled, so the building was constructed around them.
“The structure has five floors of gallery and cultural spaces above-ground and three below”
Galleries, exhibits and displays introduce the history and culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora. The Slavery and Freedom exhibit documents the history of slavery in the United States from its beginning in Colonial times to its conclusion with the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom exhibit chronicles the era of segregation and captures the major aspects of the African American struggle to achieve full citizenship. While the Making a Way exhibition shows how African Americans persevered through discrimination like Jim Crow laws, the Changing America displays highlight the transformation of society brought on by the Civil Rights Movement. Exhibitions also show the contributions that African Americans have made to art, music, theater and sports. Featuring the Tuskegee Airmen, the Double Victory exhibit honors African Americans who fought for freedom at home and abroad.
“Pieces of particular interest include personal items belonging to Harriet Tubman, a Bible owned by Nat Turner, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves and a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong”
The museum is located at the intersection of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW. It is open every day from 10 a.m. until 5:20 p.m. except Christmas Day. Entry to the museum is controlled through the issuance of timed passes. The free passes can be obtained online. Visitors must pass through a security checkpoint before entering the gallery space. Volunteer docents are available to provide advice on navigating the gallery spaces.
Along with tripods and selfie sticks, food and beverages are not permitted inside the museum. The award-winning, 400-seat Sweet Home Café offers a rotating menu of traditional African American dishes inspired by various regions of the country. Because parking is limited near the museum, it is recommended that visitors use public transportation. Serving the Blue and Orange lines, Federal Triangle and Smithsonian are the two closest Metro stops.
If time permits, consider visiting additional nearby Washington, D.C. points of interest. Top recommendations include the following:
The National Museum of American History features displays and hands-on exhibits that reflect the social, political and scientific culture of the United States. The more than three million-piece collection includes the original Star Spangled Banner, George Washington’s uniform and Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.”
The National Museum of Natural History is the most popular natural history museum in the world. It is dedicated to understanding the natural world around us and our role in it. Exhibits feature dinosaurs, the human experience, geological artifacts and minerals like the Hope Diamond.
The Washington Monument towers over the city as a tribute to the Father of our Country. At over 554 feet, it is the tallest obelisk in the world and an iconic symbol of the nation’s capital. The observation floor provides panoramic views of the city as well as nearby Virginia and Maryland.
The Ellipse, or President’s Park South, is a 52-acre green space that features a variety of monuments and memorials. These include the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain designed by Daniel Chester French, gatehouses by Charles Bulfinch and the Boy Scout Memorial by Donald De Lue. Along with the Zero Milestone, the Ellipse is the setting for the annual Christmas Tree and the National Menorah.