rsz_freelon_-_adjaye_may_2016
From left, architects Phil Freelon and David Adjaye discuss the design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — THE COUNTDOWN IS OFFICIALLY UNDERWAY. Two months from today, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will celebrate its grand opening with a dedication ceremony featuring President Obama.

The Sept. 24 debut of the Smithsonian museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., has been a long time coming. A century in the making, after languishing for decades, Congress passed legislation establishing the museum in 2003, and the groundbreaking was in 2012. Initially slated to open in fall 2015—a moment that would have coincided with milestone anniversaries of the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (1865); passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965); and the end of the Civil War, with the surrender at Appomattox, Va. (1865)—the dedication was delayed a year. In February, the museum announced it would open on Sept. 24, 2016.

Progress has been moving along since. Construction was completed in April, and in May, museum officials hosted about 100 journalists for a walk-through of the building. In June, the museum met its fundraising goal, surpassing the $270 million in private donations it was seeking. Earlier this month, NMAAHC unveiled a new website. General information about the grand opening is available on the site, which encourages visitors explore the museum’s collection and the many stories the objects tell about the African American experience.

CURATORS AND EXHIBITION DESIGNERS, along with the architects, landscape designer and construction foreman were present for the press tour. While the exterior shell of the building was complete, the interior was still a construction site, with galleries, displays and finishes in progress. Given the state of the space, the museum requested that everyone wear flat comfortable shoes and furnished hard hats and neon vests required for safety.

Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of NMAAHC, began the tour by informing the journalists gathered about what to expect. “We are so delighted you are all here. This is a great opportunity for this museum to share what we have been working on for over 10 years and our predecessors have been working on. The Grand Army of the Republic started 100 years ago looking for a way to memorialize the black experience, the black sacrifice, the black achievement,” she said.

“You will see some marvelous architecture. …You’ll also see some major objects that were loaded into the museum even before we started construction. …You’ll also hear about what is to come and you’ll hear the stories that we are telling through our magnificent group of curatorial colleagues who are here today. They have crafted the execution and the realization of what Lonnie Bunche, [the museum’s director], promised when he joined this museum, which is to look at the American experience through the African American experience.”

“[Our curators] have crafted the execution and the realization of what Lonnie Bunche, [the museum’s director], promised when he joined this museum, which is to look at the American experience through the African American experience.”
— Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director, NMAAHC

Kinshasha Holman Conwill speaks to journalists May 2016
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of NMAAHC, speaks to journalist on May 12. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

Conwill added that exhibition designers would also be on hand to talk about how they translated the experiences and stories being conveyed into spaces to house objects, which she described as haunting, sacred and amazing. The tour included the history galleries, which are situated below ground; the cultural galleries, which included displays for major figures in music and comedy, and the Oprah Winfrey Theater. The galleries where the museum’s collection of visual art will be exhibited were not a part of the tour. Officials said there was nothing yet to see in those spaces.

ARCHITECT DAVID ADJAYE was the lead designer on the project. Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, Adjaye was educated in London where he established Adjaye Associates in 2000. He explained the concept of the museum’s design, which is defined by a three-tiered bronze corona, referencing its three areas of programming—history, community and culture. The tiered corona is found in Nigerian sculpture and references ornamental patterned ironwork created by free and enslaved black craftsman from New Orleans. He also emphasized the historic significance of erecting a sacred monument to the African American experience on a site where slave markets once operated.

Today, the location of the museum is a “very important monumental core” with “nine very specific view corridors,” Adjaye said, offering views from the museum that include the White House, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, U.S. Capitol, National Archives, Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, National Museum of American History, and the Reflecting Pool. A special area on the concourse level provides majestic views of the surrounding landmarks.

 

NMAAHC May 2016
The landscape of NMAAHC’s grounds was carefully considered in relation to the architecture of the building, its siting, and the themes of the museum. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

SYMBOLISM IS EVERPRESENT in the design, from the siting and concept, even in decisions made regarding the landscape design, which is tightly integrated into the architecture.

Rodrigo Abela, a principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, the landscape architecture firm, spoke to Culture Type about the grounds when the tour concluded.

“At the broadest level, the museum is a lens through which to see American history not just African American history. It’s a museum for everybody. So being a part of the larger composition of the National Mall is a big part of that,” said Abela, standing on a path on the north side of the museum. Toward that end, there is a sense of openness and continuity between the NMAAHC site and the adjacent monuments. Curving paths sync up with those around the Washington Monument and have a relationship with those leading to the Ellipse in front of the White House.

The design of NMAAHC is entirely unique, but some of the decisions were informed by lessons learned from its predecessors. Other museums on the National Mall have entrances on the second floor on the mall side and the first floor on the Constitution Avenue side, which can be disorienting once inside. By contrast, Abela said they worked really hard on the grounds between Constitution and NMAAHC to build the grade up, so that whether you enter the museum from the north or south side, you are on the main level.

On the south side of the museum there is a large porch, a reference to Southern architecture and culture, and a gesture of welcome. Also on the grounds is a reading grove, a grouping of benches that give a nod to African American traditions of storytelling and worship. An outdoor art installation is also planned.

“Tying it all together is the plant palette,” said Abela. The plantings on the grounds of NMAAHC include more than 100 different trees, shrubs and perennials, chosen to reflect the museum’s broad themes of resiliency, spirituality, hope, and optimism.

The plantings on the grounds of NMAAHC include more than 100 different trees, shrubs and perennials, chosen to reflect the museum’s broad themes of resiliency, spirituality, hope, and optimism.

Known for their strength and resilience, American beech and oak trees line the north side of the site. Trees and plants that flower white—such as dogwoods and white magnolias—were chosen to symbolize spirituality. For hope and optimism, 400,000 crocus bulbs were planted on the north lawn.

“It’s this giant field,” said Abela. “Crocuses bloom at the end of February, early March. It’s supposed to be February, which is Black History Month. But more importantly, it’s the time of year when the Washington grounds over there, at that time of year, it’s gone through winter. The grass is brown. Everything is trampled and dead and none of the trees have leaves on them. Then all of a sudden [over here], these little guys pop up as the first sign of spring and they fill the lawn. We saw them for the first time this spring.”

 

NMAAHC - crocus filled lawn - March 2016
Violet-colored crocuses planted by the landscape design team carpet the north lawn of NMAACH, March 2016. | Photo by Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution

 

BEFORE THE TOUR GOT UNDERWAY Adjaye responded to a question from the gathered press about the meaning of this project, how it compared with the many other cultural commissions he has worked on around the world. Adjaye said: “This is a once in a lifetime experience. In an architect’s career you don’t get this kind of project or this kind of site. This is the most important demonstration of democracy in the world and to have this building at the junction of two important ideas of the demonstration of democracy, this landscape garden, the memorial grounds that celebrate the achievement of struggling for democracy and the freedom that is enjoyed in America, the ability to make this site is really a humbling one.”

He continued, adding, “There is a great reverence to want to be respectful, but also to be assertive and clear and to also honor the history which is an incredible history of celebration. There is triumph and there is also incredible tragedy, but to actually honor them was a part of what we felt was our responsibility in making this design and we hope that the building and the spaces that you are going to see really celebrate that.”

There is triumph and there is also incredible tragedy, but to actually honor them was a part of what we felt was our responsibility in making this design and we hope that the building and the spaces that you are going to see really celebrate that.”
— Architect David Adjaye, lead designer, NMAAHC

The Freelon Group is the architect of record for the museum. Founder and President Phil Freelon provided further insight about the opportunity to work on the museum. He said, “I would add, as an African American who grew up in the 60s and 70s and was part of and served in the Civil Rights Movement, it is just an incredible honor to have association with this project and to be a part of it because illuminating this history and understanding now that our nation’s capital is paying attention and really holding that up as an example for the world to see. This story of African American culture is infused throughout the planet all over the globe and to have it be memorialized here in a living way, not just about the history, but looking forward to the future, is really something special. I speak for the rest of the team when I say it really is an honor and a privilege to have worked on this project.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
The National Museum of African American History and Culture has been mounting satellite exhibitions in the adjacent National Museum of American history and publishing books as the design and construction of its museum building has moved forward. Double Exposure, a multi-volume series, features photography from the museum’s collection.

 

The following images offer a behind-the-scenes look at the museum’s progress (as of May 12, 2016).

 

NMAAHC Tuskegee Airplane
One of the museum’s largest objects is a circa 1944 Boeing-Stearman PT-13D Kaydet, an open cockpit biplane used to train Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Tuskegee Airplane. 2
An alternative installation view of a biplane used at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to train African American Army Air Corps pilots. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC slave cabin 3
A circa early 1800s slave cabin from the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, S.C. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC slave cabin 2
Alternative installation view of the slave cabin. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC slave cabin 1
Rear view of the weatherboard-clad slave cabin, which was a gift of Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC I too sing America
A variety of entry points and platforms are used to convey information and surface history and stories. Here, “I Too Sing America,” the poem by Langston Hughes, is featured on a wall in the history galleries. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Founding of America
Similarly , another wall focuses on the founding of America. Elsewhere, a quote by Ida B. Wells is featured. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Agola Prison Guard Tower
A 20-foot tall prison tower (circa 1930s-40s) from Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, one of the larges maximum security prisons in the nation. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC history displays
The history level of the museum features visual displays that present a timeline of African American history. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC log house
Jones-Hall-Sims House (circa 1874) was built and inhabited by free slaves after the civil War in Poolesville, Md. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC log house interior
Interior detail view of the Jones-Hall-Sims log house, a gift from Bradley and Shannon Rhoderick. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC stairway
A central winding stairway is one of the key interior architectural elements. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Oprah Winfrey Theater 3
The Oprah Winfrey Theater, which will host museum programs and discussions, features architectural wall cladding that references the bronze panels on the exterior of the museum building. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Detail of Oprah Windrey Theater
Detail of the wall paneling in the Oprah Winfrey Theater. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Essence
Essence magazine is among the many influential cultural institutions highlighted at the museum. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Parliament Funkadelic Mothership
The Parliament-Funkadelic Mothershiop (circa 1990), a 1,200 pound prop used by George Clinton at his concerts, was a gift from Love to the Planet. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC music display cases
In the music galleries display cases are dedicated to Prince, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles. Nearby, display cases are devoted to Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson, Earth Wind & Fire, Gap Band, Kool & the Gang, and hip hop artists, such as Curtis Blow, Slick Rick, J Dilla, and female MCs such as Queen Latifah and MC Lyte. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Chuck berry cadillac 2
Construction plans are strewn all over the base of Chuck Berry’s circa 1973 cherry-red Cadillac, another one of the museum’s large objects that was covered and featured a sign warning “Do Not Touch.” | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC black hollywood
Displays will pay tribute to black Hollywood and Africa American contributions to film. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAACH comedy
The “Taking the Stage” exhibition in the cultural galleries features comedians including Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, which has caused some controversy. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC Ricard Pryor
Comedian Richard Pryor is featured in “Taking the Stage.” | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

NMAAHC View from Concourse level
Majestic views from the Concourse level include the Washington Monument. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine