Smithsonian National Museum Of African-American History and Culture

By Finn MacLeod

National Museum of African-American History and Culture
Alan Karchmer
 

Previously housed in a small gallery inside the American History Museum, the National Museum Of African-American History and Culture is the newest standalone member of the Smithsonian Institution.

Washington, D.C., is one of the most architecturally uniform and meticulously planned cities in the United States. Awash in rows of imposing colonial buildings, each housing various arms of the nation’s federal government, the city posed a unique challenge to the designers of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the latest addition to the country’s arsenal of national museums.

The evolution of the creation of the NMAAHC is equal parts politics and design. Beginning in 1988, the federal government of the United States began discussing the establishment of a national museum for African American history, under the stewardship of the Smithsonian. Little progress was made until 2003 when then-President George W. Bush signed legislation that established the museum. In 2008, a design competition was held and a shortlist unveiled that included many of the world’s leading practices: Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Foster + Partners, Moshe Safdie and Associates, and a consortium of firms led by David Adjaye, among others.

The winning group, collectively known as Freelon Adjaye Bond — composed of Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, and Davis Brody Bond (architects of the National 9/11 Museum and Memorial in New York), with SmithGroup JJR — were tasked with designing what would become one of the nation’s most contentious public buildings. Located on the National Mall adjacent to the National Museum of American History and the Washington Monument, the new building occupies a uniquely physical and metaphorical space and represents the ongoing struggles of a deeply marginalized population within the United States. Serving as lead designer, Adjaye was charged with telling the story of the largest racial minority in the United States.

The culmination of nearly twenty years of political red tape, the NMAAHC finally opened in 2016 to great fanfare, with Presidents Obama and Bush in attendance to celebrate the historic milestone. An emblem of the African-American community, the museum is an elegant, understated architectural gesture that, like the community it represents, maintains a distinct identity in the landscape while remaining aware of its context and profound history.

Clad in a porous bronze pyramid-like lattice skin inspired by Yoruban culture and African-American craftsmanship, the building appears fortress-like in comparison to the classical, staid architecture of its neighbors. Challenged by Washington’s age-old building height restrictions — no structure can be taller than the Washington Monument, which is relatively short in modern terms — the museum rises five stories above ground and houses nearly as many below.

In designing the first dedicated building for the NMAAHC, the designers were tasked to project spatial usage for a museum with a brief history and a rapidly evolving mission in an increasingly racially heated period for the United States. The resulting building is a flexible, airy, and multi-functional center capable of keeping pace with the museum’s changing needs. Incorporating a complex combination of galleries, education, event, and contemplative spaces, the building was designed for longevity — but most importantly, to convey respect to the community it represents.

Inside, the building’s expansive, column-free spaces are punctuated by dramatically integrated daylight and surrounded by panoramic views of the city and nearby monuments. Underground, a three-story memorial space sits adjacent to a contemplation chamber featuring a waterfall pouring from an illuminated oculus — a reminder of the gravity of African-American history and the influence its population had on the development of the United States. Designed to evoke powerful emotions in its visitors, the museum’s interiors are finished with raw, dark materials — namely concrete, timber and bronze — a symbolic nod to the raw, diverse, and unresolved systemic challenges felt by African-Americans.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture recounts the tangled history of its constituents while simultaneously setting an optimistic tone for the future of the nation. The genesis of its spaces — from dark and meditative underground to bright and open at the upper levels — tells the story of a thriving people undeterred by the darkest moments of their history. A poetic response to a deeply complex and inter-sectional subject, the museum intuitively recognizes the African-American experience with the dignity and importance it is owed while reminding visitors that its history continues to be written. The building stands tall on Constitution Avenue, a steadfast lantern glowing ceaselessly, and a beacon for progress in America.