A look inside the new national African-American museum and its distinctive architecture, exhibits, stories and upcoming 3-day festival. (Baltimore Sun video)
WASHINGTON — — Up, up, up visitors walk, out of the darkness and into the light.
About sixty percent of the vast new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Saturday, is underground.
Partly, that's to comply with height restrictions imposed on structures built on the National Mall, and partly, that's because a building so large — 400,000 square feet — would look ridiculous if it were entirely above grade, said the museum's lead architect, Philip Freelon.
But founding director Lonnie Bunch III and his curators have made a virtue of necessity. Objects in the murkiest parts of the museum, such as ballast bars found in the wreckage of a Portuguese slave ship that sank in 1794, reflect humanity's most shameful impulses. But as visitors ascend, the galleries become filled with sunlight both literally and in tone. Visitors can marvel at cultural treasures that include a bat swung by baseball great Jackie Robinson or Chuck Berry's candy-apple red 1973 Cadillac.
Marylanders will see familiar names in the gallery, including abolitionist Harriet Tubman's book of hymns; the pioneering neurosurgeon (and recent political candidate) Ben Carson, who's represented by his green scrubs and lab coat; and a cast made of composer Eubie Blake's hands shortly before his death in 1983.
At this week's media preview, Smithsonian Institution Secretary David Skorton told a crowd of 500 reporters that America's new national research museum — the 19th at the Smithsonian — is opening "at a time when social and political discord remind us that racism is not ... a thing of the past."
"This museum can help advance the public conversation," Skorton said. "You can actually see people appear to change, especially young people, as they explore an exhibition and light up with a spark of recognition."
Bunch told about breaking into his own offices on his first day on the job in 2005. Temporary digs for the museum had been set up in L'Enfant Plaza. But no one had informed the building's manager or security guards. The office door was locked, and no one would give him keys.
"I went back to the office, and this maintenance guy was walking past," Bunch said. "I borrowed his crowbar, he obligingly looked the other way, and I broke in. It struck me that none of us were ready for this challenge — not the Smithsonian and not me."
The idea for an African-American museum was first proposed by black Civil War veterans in 1915, Skorton said, and in 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed a commission to put together a plan. But no spare funds were to be had during the Depression, so the project lost momentum.
It wasn't until 1988 that a bill to fund an African-American museum was introduced in Congress. But year after year the initiative died, the result of a strange-bedfellows coalition of opponents that included Rep. Jesse Helms, the conservative North Carolina Republican, who argued that the museum would waste taxpayer dollars, and regional African-American museums, which feared that a colossus on the Potomac would put them out of business.
Finally, in 2003, legislation was passed authorizing the creation of the museum.
"We felt it was crucial to craft a museum that would help America remember and confront its tortured racial past," Bunch said.
"But we also felt had to find the hope, the resilience and the spirituality that was endemic in this community. Our goal was to find that tension between moments of tears and moments of great joy."
Finishing touches still are being put on the behemoth, which was built at a cost of $540 million. The museum, which has a staff of 200, owns about 37,000 objects, about 3,000 of which are on display. Half of the funds came from the federal government, and half from private donors — some as high-profile as Oprah Winfrey, who donated $13 million. Curators are expecting the museum to receive at least 5 million visitors in its first year, Bunch said.
As visitors walk toward the museum, the three-tiered building shimmers brown-gold in the sun. Its most visually striking characteristic is the corona, or bronze fretwork, designed by architect David Adjaye that surrounds the building and, from the upper floors, provides fragmented glimpses of the sky. The result is a structure both substantial and airily delicate.
Freelon, who headed a four-firm architectural team, said the museum's exterior is meant to evoke a Yoruban caryatid, a traditional wooden column topped by a crown. The statue that inspired the design, by the 20th-century master Olowe of Ise, is on display in the fourth floor visual art gallery.
(Freelon also designed the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.)
In addition, the metal tracery on the building brings to mind ironwork crafted by enslaved people in South Carolina and Louisiana.
"So much of our history is hidden in plain sight," Bunch said during a hard-hat tour in July. "This is our homage to them."
The design is full of these subtle touches, Freelon said, that visitors may pick up subliminally.
It also was important to the design team that the museum be environmentally sensitive. The roof is formed of photovoltaic panels that provide solar power, Freelon said. In addition, the landscape is irrigated with recycled rainwater.
Most museum-goers will start their tour on the three underground floors containing the historical exhibits.
The lowest concourse examines the slave trade beginning with the Middle Passage. The second concourse contains exhibits on the era of segregation — including a shotgun shell and glass fragments found in the gutter outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four little girls died in a bombing in 1963.The top concourse, "1968 and Beyond," examines the ramifications of the civil rights movement and includes artifacts from Barack ranging from Obama's 2008 presidential campaign to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The first two above-ground floors of the museum are devoted to the lobby and educational space. The parts of the museum celebrating African-American culture are on the third and fourth floors.
Carla Hall, q chef and television personality," signed on as a consulting chef for the museum's Sweet Home Cafe, which has four stations devoted to regional fare: the South (sample menu item: fried chicken), Creole coast (gumbo), North (oyster pan roast) and West (beef stew).
The third-floor community galleries explore African-American life in such institutions as sports, military, schools and religion. On the fourth floor, visitors will find exhibits devoted to African-American contributions to the visual arts, music, stand-up comedy and the stage.
Though the museum examines history and culture through an African-American lens, Skorton said it's intended to help people of all races gain a perspective on the social and political forces that continue to shape us. Two U.S. presidents who have championed the museum, Obama and his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, will attend Saturday's dedication, along with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts.
"This extraordinary museum," Skorton said, "will help our country gain a fuller understanding of what it means to be an American."