A statue shows Australian Peter Norman, left, with U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising fists at the 1968 Olympics. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

At 400,000 square feet, the new National Museum of African American History and Culture is immense, but it’s also a museum cleaved in two, literally and metaphorically.

When you enter the museum, you immediately have a choice to make. Venture deep into the dim light of the lower levels, where the history galleries lie, and you can see Emmett Till’s casket, walk through a Southern Railway train car designed for the era of segregation and come face to face with slave shackles and the disembodied, worn satin hood of a Ku Klux Klan member. Or take an elevator up, and it’s America on the upswing, in the culture and community galleries. They are full of stories of achievement, modern fortitude and activism, such as an Instagram-worthy statue of track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who stood on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics and gave the Black Power salute.

A peek at the Mall’s latest addition

Museum staff suggest starting at the beginning — on the lowest level of the museum — and working your way up, but it’s almost certain you can’t see it all in one day. Instead, come up with a game plan. If you’re seeking out less-touted sights, here are four itineraries to ensure you can steep in some favorite subjects, from Washington history to pop culture.

Pop culture

Outside of the sports gallery on the third floor, there’s no area of the museum more jam-packed with milestones than the pop culture galleries on the fourth floor, which capture the representation of African Americans in the media and the arts.

“A Raisin in the Sun”

Where to find it: Taking the Stage (fourth floor)

The first play written by an African American woman to be staged on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin” presented a black family’s story to the theatergoing set when it opened in 1959, with such actors as Sidney Poitier and Ossie Davis. It’s so enduring that it’s often restaged: The museum’s display shows three playbills for three Broadway productions, with three different casts, in 1959, 2004 and 2014.

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Richard Pryor

Where to find it: Taking the Stage (fourth floor)

As you work your way up the museum, where the light seeps in through the bronze filigree, there’s metaphorical light, too: comedic voices, truth-tellers who were able to speak for the millions while providing some relief from the burning issues of the day. Richard Pryor’s quotes — “What I am saying might be profane, but it is also profound” is just one — are worth a stop all on their own.

NeNe Leakes

Where to find it: Cultural Expressions (fourth floor)

In a museum that cannot live only in the past, is there anything more reassuring than finding “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” star’s face plastered on a wall? NeNe Leakes’s dismissive expression makes the cut, in a display on communication and gestures — along with President Obama fist-bumping with the first lady and Clair Huxtable’s “I don’t think so” finger wag.

A window into Mae’s Millinery, whose clientele included Lena Horne, is on the third floor. (Lavanya Ramanathan/The Washington Post)

Not everything in the museum carries deep historical weight. No, sometimes, it’s simply fun to stare at the clothes.

Michelle Obama’s cocktail dress

Where to find it: “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond” (C1 level)

The first lady donned this 2013 Tracy Reese frock — with its bright orange poppies, well, popping against the dark fabric — for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Designed by an African American designer and retailing for $500, the knee-length dress is the perfect emblem of Obama’s sartorial sense.

Mae Reeves’s millinery shop

Where to find it: “Power of Place” (third floor)

A cream linen topper encircled by flowers. A flapper-style cap covered completely with shiny, green-black plumes. Philadelphia milliner Mae Reeves’s clientele included Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. The museum’s display shows not only the great tradition of crown-like hats among an older generation of African American women, but also opportunity-making and the entrepreneurial spirit of Reeves and others, even in the years of segregation.

Ben Carson’s physician’s jacket

Where to find it: “Making a Way Out of No Way” (third floor)

You can’t help but do a double-take as you walk past this white overcoat, embroidered with the onetime presidential candidate’s name. But the scrubs and jacket are one of the museum’s many surprises, this one a reminder that Carson was a groundbreaking pediatric neurosurgeon, famed not only for being one of the surgeons who performed a successful separation of twins conjoined at the head, but also for his book, “Gifted Hands.”

Door-knocker earrings and Adidas

Where to find it: “Cultural Expressions” (fourth floor)

These earrings and sneakers set off a fascinating examination of the ways in which fashion — described here as “styling out” — has been used as armor against stereotyping and arguments of cultural inferiority. It adds up to an interesting take on why fashion is never just fashion, particularly among African Americans.

A Public Enemy banner designed by singer and songwriter Chuck D hangs in the “Changing America” exhibition. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Musical moments can be found throughout the museum, not just in the captivating Musical Crossroads area on the fourth floor, where opera and Michael Jackson’s “Woo!” blissfully clash in an aural mash-up.

Mapping hip-hop in the Bronx

Where to find it: “Power of Place” (third floor)

Chain-link fencing, turntables and photos wheatpasted on the wall in a grafitti-inspired setup: Yes, you’re in the Bronx, and this display chronicling the birth of hip-hop in the New York neighborhood blends the political influences at play — disenfranchisement, multiculturalism, a new youthful generation — with the rise of the musical form.

Public Enemy banner

Where to find it: “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond” (C1 level)

The hip-hop crew popularized the notion of melding rap and social justice issues, calling out the disenfranchisement of black communities over beats so hard suburban kids relished cranking it from their boomboxes, too. Their calling card, a banner designed by the group’s own Chuck D, is set off near the museum’s Black Power displays.

The interactive experience

Where to find it: “Musical Crossroads” (fourth floor)

Relive some of music’s most memorable moments on a wood-paneled dance floor, where you might hear and be surrounded by footage of Marian Anderson’s performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 or a raging guitar solo from Jimi Hendrix.

En Vogue dress

Where to find it: “Musical Crossroads” (fourth floor)

Tiny, red and sultry, the column gown from En Vogue’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” video, from the heyday of the music video and MTV, will have people of a certain age — namely, in their 30s and 40s — feeling nostalgic for the New Jack Swing-era of R&B.

D.C.’s own Godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown, appears in the “Musical Crossroads” exhibition. (Lavanya Ramanathan/The Washington Post)
D.C. represent

As the seat of power, Washington is a recurring motif in the museum: the scene of the 1963 March on Washington; the town where, in marble halls, monumental court cases were decided; the second home to some of the nation’s legendary activists. But the museum also squeezes in references to the small urban region affectionately known as “D.C.”

Resurrection City on the Mall

Where to find it: A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond (C1 level)

Five years after the March on Washington, the Mall was the scene of a lesser-known protest: It played host to a hardscrabble tent city next to the Reflecting Pool. Protesters highlighted conditions that left them impoverished, including limited access to bank loans and full-time jobs. A plywood Basquiat-esque mural from the makeshift town-within-a-town is displayed here.


Where to find it: Musical Crossroads (fourth floor)

The rhythmic, popping drumbeat of go-go was once so ubiquitous in Washington it could be heard pouring from cars and from the windows of homes. See the Jimi Hendrix-adorned drumhead from Experience Unlimited, one the most commercially successful go-go acts to hail from the District, and learn about the music’s distinct, rhythmic “pocket” in a nook devoted to the genre.

Florida Avenue Grill

Where to find it: Cultural Expressions (fourth floor)

Founded in 1944, the Florida Avenue Grill now sits on a corner surrounded by some of the most expensive, modern apartments in the city. But lines still form on weekend mornings for something harder to find here: old D.C. The stockpot on display, gifted by the Grill’s current owners, is a soul food relic, from a place that defies the very idea that the only soul food in this city is reinterpreted by celebrity chefs.