A visitor’s observations on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Part II

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As I made my way through the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s five floors of exhibitions, it was the museum’s effective use of objects to convey both individual and collective narratives and big ideas about history that most impressed me. It was often the small objects that told the most compelling stories.

Elizabeth Freeman statue, NMAAHC. Photo credit: Will Walker.

Examples of European and African currencies, for example, illuminated complex networks of exchange that enabled the slave trade, and a first edition of Olaudah Equiano’s narrative signaled that Africans were not passive victims of enslavement. An installation on “Sugar: Driver of the Slave Trade” used a boiling pot as well as shiny silver tea pots to illustrate how the desires of European consumers created the misery of millions of enslaved Africans. In the “Paradox of Liberty” section, which highlighted the disparity between revolutionary ideals of natural liberty and the reality of human bondage in the new United States, I was drawn to the handmade tin Joseph Trammel created to protect his freedom papers and the beads that Elizabeth Freeman gave to her attorney’s daughter when she was suing for her freedom in late-eighteenth-century Massachusetts. In another section, the deliberate juxtaposition of stereotypical objects associated with blackface minstrelsy and a wall of photographs labeled “Community Building” struck me as an effective way to address the challenge of exhibiting racist imagery. Clearly such things could not be left out, but they were also not allowed to dominate the narrative. White racism and community empowerment were juxtaposed in ways that showed African Americans’ struggles without ignoring their accomplishments.

Although much of the press about the museum has focused on showpieces like the guard tower from Angola Prison and the Jim Crow railroad car, it was the cumulative effect of so many stories told through individual objects that had the greatest impact on me. Through five floors of jam-packed exhibitions, I continually found delightful, fascinating, and occasionally heart-wrenching objects, as well as the ideas, stories, and movements behind them. Here was not de-contextualized connoisseurship, but the craft of history marshaled in the service of a grand project.

Signs for public accommodations that served African American travelers, NMAAHC. Photo credit: Will Walker.

The museum’s wealth of attention-grabbing objects and compelling stories encouraged slow movement through the exhibition halls. Luckily I had planned to spend the entire day. Even still, it was clear from the beginning of my journey that one visit would not be enough to see everything and that museum fatigue would be an issue. As I made my way from exhibits on the growth and development of slavery across North America to the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, Civil Rights, and beyond, I began to read more selectively—recognizing that I would need to keep moving if I had any hope of making it to the museum’s upper floors, which dealt with more contemporary aspects of African American culture.

Moving forward in time closer to the present, I continued to be attentive to smaller objects and the stories they told. As I climbed from the bottom to the top of the museum, I found more and more stories of triumph and achievement—this was no doubt intentional, bringing to mind the motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, “Lifting as we climb.”

Bo Diddley’s guitar, NMAAHC. Photo credit: Will Walker.

The top two floors of the exhibition were devoted to “Culture” and “Community” galleries, which highlighted art, dance, food, and other cultural expressions, as well as the accomplishments of many individual African Americans who made “a way out of no way.” As my colleague remarked during our visit, this was the “dessert”—the place to revel in the extraordinary richness of African American history and culture. Joining in the fun, I couldn’t help but snap photos of Bo Diddley’s and Chuck Berry’s guitars and Bill Russell’s Celtics jersey. It was not, however, an uncritical celebration. For example, a series of excellent short films featuring thoughtful commentators from ESPN framed the sports section in terms of issues of race, discrimination, and controversy. I was impressed that the baseball film, for example, mentioned nineteenth-century black ballplayers, as well as Jackie Robinson, and discussed how integrating the Major Leagues in the fifties ultimately destroyed the Negro Leagues. From another angle, a film on boxing explored why the sport had not been segregated—greedy promoters hoped to exploit racial tensions and incite controversy by pitting black and white boxers against one another.

Several more visits to the museum, and several thousand more words, would be required to provide a more comprehensive accounting of its contents. Nevertheless, I hope these impressions offer a sense of what NMAAHC has already accomplished. It immediately takes its place as one of the great history museums of the world, and its impact will no doubt be felt for generations.

James Baldwin quotation, NMAAHC. Photo credit: Will Walker.

On the massive gray wall that looms over the three floors of the main history exhibition, two quotations make the case for history’s relevance to our contemporary lives. Ida B. Wells’s statement that “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them” gives purpose to the museum’s goal of telling the “unvarnished truth.” Simultaneously, James Baldwin’s quotation makes history personal by reminding us that “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it . . . History is literally present in all we do.” As a historian, I was moved by such an overt and powerful case for the significance of history. More important, these words beautifully encapsulate why this museum matters to all of us.

~ Will Walker is associate professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program (SUNY Oneonta). He is a lead editor of [email protected] and author of A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum. You can find Part I here.

Editor’s note: You can read part 1 of this two-part post by clicking here.

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