If you’re among the many who saw the craziness around the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and thought, “Maybe I’ll wait until the crowds are a little thinner,” I have good news and bad. The good: As the museum approaches its third birthday, it’s not the sardine can it was during its first year. The bad: It’s still insanely crowded, especially during prime hours.
I’m a little surprised the museum still feels so packed. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a fantastic museum, more than worthy of all the buzz. But it’s also a big museum, with 105,000 square feet of exhibit space and 517,198 visitors during the first four months of this year. Compare that with the National Portrait Gallery, which has considerably less exhibit space (57,000 square feet) and more visitors (553,116 in the same four months) — and no timed tickets or long lines.
You might argue (correctly) that portraits tend to be flat, while the NMAAHC displays some enormous, three-dimensional pieces of history, including an entire prison guard tower. (Also, the Portrait Gallery’s interior courtyard probably acts as a pressure valve when crowds get thick.) However, I suspect the layout of the NMAAHC is the biggest culprit in its continuing congestion.
Visits to NMAAHC begin with bottleneck after bottleneck: There’s just one escalator to get to the one glass elevator to get to the beginning of the history exhibit. Then, you’re funneled into a series of narrow rooms that cover the origins of slavery and its transition from being a temporary condition to one that was lifelong and linked to another poisonous construct: race. The bottom floor’s claustrophobic spaces are perhaps meant to echo the nightmarish experience of slave ships, but they also make it tough to take in the thoughtfully presented and succinctly explained history on offer.
The history exhibits become roomier after the timeline reaches the American Revolution — a welcome respite, though it doesn’t make thematic sense. After all, while many white folks probably breathed a sigh of relief when the British retreated, the situation was as bad as ever for most enslaved people. The American Revolution exhibit also represents a rare bit of muddled storytelling in the mostly clear-eyed museum, as it never addresses the obvious question: If the British had won, might slavery have ended sooner in America? Scholars generally hate counterfactuals, but I, for one, would love to hear what NMAAHC historians have to say about this one.
When I visited the NMAAHC a few times during its first year, crowds remained dense all the way through the history levels, and only thinned out around the cultural exhibits — which showcase African Americans’ achievements in music, sports and the visual arts, among other areas. The visual arts part of the museum is particularly nice, with high ceilings and views of the Mall. The art also provides a breath of fresh air. It’s a shame so many people stop short and end up missing showstoppers like BK Adams’ “Blue Horse,” a joyous assemblage of a sculpture, or “Grand Dame Queenie,” a characteristically vivid portrait by Baltimore’s Amy Sherald.
On a recent Friday morning, crowding wasn’t a problem. For the first time, I was able to check out the history displays without having to read over my fellow visitors’ shoulders.
Perhaps that’s how I found a surprising quote from Thomas Jefferson that I had never noticed before: “Nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition.” If Jefferson understood that, how on God’s green earth did he justify slavery? As it turns out, the museum left out the beginning (and the end) of the sentence, which was taken from a letter Jefferson wrote to the black intellectual Benjamin Banneker. “No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that ...,” the sentence begins (and then ends with “of their existence”). It seems that Jefferson was admitting that Banneker was a smart guy while also implying that he was the exception to the rule. Now that’s the equivocating, flattering Jefferson I know and don’t particularly love.
Despite the crowds, and the occasional truncated quote, the NMAAHC always manages to get across its overarching view of American history as a long slog that ultimately bends toward freedom and equality. This is a hopeful storyline, one that allows us to rejoice in America’s promise even in the face of glaring failures. But as we celebrate the Fourth of July once again, I can’t help but wonder when we will extend the idea of inalienable rights to a huge group of people who have been largely left out of the discussion since Jefferson put quill to parchment: namely, those not lucky enough to have been born here.
More reviews by the Staycationer