The latest of the Smithsonian museums opened just a little over two months ago. Its name, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH) is a mouthful to say but it is somewhat fitting considering the amount of information available to any visitor. I’ve had the opportunity to see the museum earlier this month and this new Smithsonian definitely didn’t disappoint.
As identified in its designation, the museum is divided primarily into two sections. The history portions of the museum chronologically described how African-Americans came into the United States while the culture sections highlight the influence the community instilled upon the arts, music, food and literature.
If it’s your first time staying in Washington D.C. and visiting the new Smithsonian museum, prepare to spend at least a few hours to hit the highlights, many of which are listed below.
The New Smithsonian: Highlights
The history section of the new Smithsonian definitely packs a punch; and with over 500 years condensed into four floors, it’s a lot to take in. The stories highlighted and displays illustrated begun with the Atlantic slave trade and continued to reflect the events of the present day.
The Middle Passage and the Atlantic Slave Trade
The recovered wreck of the São José’s ship is a definite must see. The ship carried more than 400 slaves across the Atlantic but it never made it across the Atlantic. More than half of the slaves succumbed to the treacherous seas. Items on this exhibit include an iron ballast used to counterbalance the cumulative weights of slaves on board, a whip used aboard the slave ships and booklets containing records of trade.
The Creation of America and the Civil War
All of America’s Founding Fathers at one point were slave owners themselves and the museum clearly displayed this fact with a life-sized statue of Thomas Jefferson standing behind blocks containing names of all his slaves. In this section, visitors to the new Smithsonian will also learn how products like cotton and sugar played a big part on shaping the African American culture during that period.
Of course, you cannot possibly talk about the Civil War in America without mentioning the courageous abolitionists. One of them was a woman named Harriet Tubman. She, together with other Americans, led the Underground Railroad movement that allowed thousands of slaves obtain their freedom. Some of the items on display that once belonged to her include a lace shawl given by Queen Victoria of England and a book of hymns.
Emancipation and Segregation
Some of the most striking exhibits in the new Smithsonian are within the eras of emancipation until segregation. It begins with the original slave cabin transported from a plantation in Edisto Island, South Carolina. A peek inside will give visitors a glimpse of the day-to-day living conditions experienced by African-American families during the era of servitude. Also in this gallery are the names of more than 2,000 individuals who were lynched in a span of 50 years. Not far after the cabin, visitors will see a restored section of the Southern Railway train that contained segregated compartments and across from it were some of the original lunch counter stools taken from the a restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina where a sit-in was staged in 1960. There are also hundreds of other noteworthy artifacts including doors with “Whites Only” markings and actual robes and masks worn by Ku Klux Klan members.
Perhaps the most noteworthy display in this historically dense era is the dress worn by Rosa Parks the day she was arrested in 1955. Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat for a non-colored person in a Montgomery school bus. Her refusal was to many the incident that sparked the civil rights movement.
African Americans Today
The most visited area in the recent history is the section dedicated to the Obamas. It tells the story of Barack, then a freshman senator from Illinois, who “wowed” the country with his uncharacteristic charm and great optimistic view for America’s future. Coupled with his great ambition, he won the 2008 US presidential election and became the country’s first African-American president. On the other hand, Michelle, a lawyer by trade, started to garner comparisons to first ladies the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Abigail Adams and Jackie Kennedy, all of whom created as much of an impact as their husbands.
A few steps from the Obama gallery stand a replica of Oprah Winfrey’s studio, complete with one of the couches donated by Ms. Winfrey herself. The exhibit narrates to the new Smithsonian visitors how this unassuming woman struck a chord with many and became the most famous interviewer in the world.