A Long-Overdue Addition to the Smithsonian

Voters of American Infrastructure magazine have recognized the National Museum
of African American History & Culture as the infrastructure Building of the Year for 2016

By Sergio Flores
Photography by Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The National Museum of the American Indian was the last Smithsonian museum to open in 2004. More than a decade later, the venerable Smithsonian Institution returns with an honest and authentic addition that is as striking on the outside as its content on the inside.

The National Museum of African America History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened its doors on September 24th, 2016 with a special introduction by President Obama. The 19th Smithsonian museum covers the trajectory of the African American, nearly 400 years of rich history, spanning tragedies and triumphs.

“As Americans, we rightfully passed on the tales of the giants who built this country; who led armies into battle and waged seminal debates in the halls of Congress and the corridors of power,” said President Obama. “But too often, we ignored or forgot the stories of millions upon millions of others, who built this nation just as surely, whose humble eloquence, whose calloused hands, whose steady drive helped to create cities, erect industries, [and] build the arsenals of democracy.” The museum’s significance lies in the omitted stories that American history books don’t always acknowledge—the story of the porter, slave, industrialist, and countless others.

Nearly 200,000 individuals attended the three-day grand opening, and the momentum didn’t stop there.
Advanced passes for the exhibit are sold out until spring; in fact, the museum is now forced to start turning people away due to reaching capacity every single day, wherein attendants are spending more time than usual viewing the exhibit—many enthralled for up to six hours.

The museum is “A People’s Journey [and] A Nation’s Story,” as described on their website. An extensive and profound representation of African American’s history, culture, and community, exhibits include The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, Carlotta Walls of Little Rock Central High School, the musical prodigy Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins, and Olympic-medalist Carl Lewis.
Funding for the museum was comprised of congress and donor sources. Congress covered roughly half of the museum’s cost, and the rest included generous donors such as Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and corporations like WalMart, Nike, and Bank of America.

“I am hopeful it creates a sense of tolerance for diversity, and embracing of diversity instead of fear of it,” said Rena DeSistor, Bank of America’s global arts and culture executive and a proud donor for the museum. “Museums are places where people are drawn to think, to learn and to reflect.”

The museum rests on the famous National Mall, adjacent to many other monumental, historic buildings and memorials of America. Architect David Adjaye, a Tanzanian-born British architect, wanted to create a design that would disrupt the flow of the National Mall. “[From] the sensitivity of the master plan, that’s the critical issue that we’ve been very concerned about, making sure our building is not just another building on the mall, but a building that ends the mall proper and begins the monument,” Adjaye said. “It’s really a moment of disjunction.”