A year after it opened, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has helped change the landscape of Washington. It remains one of the hottest tickets in town, it is an essential stop for out-of-town tourists, and it has succeeded in attracting a diverse, engaged, multicultural and international audience. It has also changed the center of gravity on the Mall, drawing crowds to its symbolic nodal point, where the Washington Monument connects the White House and Jefferson Memorial to the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial. There is an energy along 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW that feels new, and welcome, in the city.
It has also settled into its site, and whatever reservations remain about its basic form — a sharp break with Washington’s tradition of monumental masonry architecture — are mitigated, at night, when light filters through the latticework of its three-tiered metal corona. Like so many large buildings in the ceremonial core of Washington, now that it’s there, it seems always to have been there.
This past year has presented a formidable test for the new museum. The crowds have been enormous, and you can see some of the strains on the building, from basic wear and tear to an escalator out of operation. The museum demonstrated its importance and necessity after a noose was left inside, one of two that were apparently symbolic attacks directed at Smithsonian visitors during an ugly period last spring. And it debuted, and has established its identity, during some of the most racially fraught months of the past half-century.
When the museum opened to journalists last September, it wasn’t finished. One of its most striking features, the underground Contemplative Court, or reflection room, where water rains gently from an oculus in the ceiling into a shallow, lighted pool below, was still a work in progress. The room is built under the plaza space that extends to Constitution Avenue, and from the outside the oculus is contained within a curious circular structure wrapped in a continuous bench. The purpose of the room was to help visitors transition from the underground galleries, devoted to the darkest chapters of African American history, to the upper-floor spaces devoted to the cultural and social organization and artistic, scientific, political and athletic accomplishment.
Now that the reflective space is open, and has become a favorite spot in the museum, it stands for both the strengths and weaknesses of the museum’s larger form, created by lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon. The building is conceptually strong, but sometimes weak on details. The drama of light and water in the Contemplation Court is as beautiful and striking as the basic design of the corona on the building’s exterior, but there is already corrosion on the ceiling panels near where the water is released. On a recent visit, it also seemed strange that, to enter the room, one had to walk up a ramp because the court is slightly higher than museum’s underground concourse. This only adds to the jumble of elevations throughout the history galleries, which are accessed by an elevator from the first underground level, which is in turn accessed by another elevator or stairway from ground level.
Placing the history galleries underground was a virtue-of-necessity response to the evolution of the museum during the design and review process, which led to some 60 percent of the interior space being located underground. The architects responded with a dramatic, even cavernous, open gallery, with a slightly canted wall that seems to hold back primal forces of the world above, and on which are now projected powerful images of African American political struggle. This was an intellectually appealing idea, but it has led to a problem that still needs to be solved: A bottleneck of visitor traffic where the elevators open into the first history galleries.
These spaces feel more than just symbolically dark and claustrophobic. They don’t invite the lingering and study that the historical material there deserves. One feels inclined to push through and skip the proliferation of wall text and small capsules of cultural and demographic information. Yet it is here, in these overwhelmed galleries, that the first and perhaps most essential lessons of the African American experience are told: That slavery was a transcontinental trade that enriched North and South alike, and that it was based, justified and sustained on the creation of a racial identity and insidious definition of slavery as “black.” Here, at the lowest point in the galleries, one learns of the roots of slavery and how those roots offer ongoing sustenance for our country’s darkest feelings; but there is hardly room to turn around, no time to think, no mental space to absorb the gravity of this message.
This will remain a problem until the museum confronts it directly and makes some hard choices. Can any more space be found on the same floor to expand these rooms? Would it make sense to edit and pare back what is on view? Do the few pieces of the slave ship, São José, on view in a side gallery serve an educational purpose? Or are these meant as sacred relics that might be displayed as such elsewhere, thus opening up a small amount of new space in these rooms? Even if more space can’t be found, the exhibition design of these rooms, by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, needs to be tamed and focused, so that wall text can be read without the disrupting recorded voice-overs and video. Text used merely as decoration should go, because the larger message is too important.
Architects and designers can be too easily enamored of the symbolism of space. When done with finesse, the experience of tension and release that comes from a narrow, enclosed chamber succeeded by a soaring open one can be thrilling. But the choke point of most visitors’ experience of the history galleries isn’t subtle or suggestive; it is a fundamental flaw of the structure. The emotional idea was sound, and it connected with a broader aesthetic of the building, which avoids the magisterial and transparent in favor of an allusive and mediated form of history. When you see the shadows cast by the corona on the interior walls of the museum, you understand what the architects were driving at. But in the galleries themselves, this initial drama of darkness to light leads only to problems of flow and congestion.
It is unfortunate that this flaw is the first experience of the building for most visitors, especially given how well other aspects of the museum have turned out. The art gallery remains one of the most inviting spaces within the structure, and views of the city and monuments through the corona are dramatically framed. The museum is dense with information and rewards multiple visits. A video about the life and death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy whose 1955 lynching in Mississippi galvanized the civil rights movement, held a throng of viewers rapt in silent horror on a visit in August. And throughout the building, one sensed a large crowd on its scrupulous best behavior, everyone meticulously nice to one another, as if to say, here, at least, we will show that we can all get along.
That is no small accomplishment. Of all the changes to the social landscape of Washington, D.C., this elaborate politesse may be constrained within the walls and corona of the museum. But it exists, and perhaps it represents more than just nervous reticence when it comes to issues of race. Perhaps it represents hope.
To see an augmented reality presentation of how the African American museum was built, open this story in the latest version of the Washington Post Classic app for iPhone or iPad.