Take a Look Inside the New National Museum of African American History and Culture

WASHINGTON, DC -- 9/14/16 -- Members of the media are silhouetted against the exterior metal screen that serves as the most distinctive feature of the building. Media Preview at The National Museum of African America History and Culture on the National Mall.… (PHOTO CREDIT: André Chung)
WASHINGTON, DC — 9/14/16 — Members of the media are silhouetted against the exterior metal screen that serves as the most distinctive feature of the building.
Media Preview at The National Museum of African America History and Culture on the National Mall.… (PHOTO CREDIT: André Chung)

You don’t even need to go inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture to get the point. Imagine the alphabet soup of agencies that govern the National Mall gave you a site, just to the right of the Washington Monument. When you came to them with your first idea, they cut it down. Too tall. So you draw a box next to the monument, a dotted square against the green lawn and the blue sky. Into that square you could fit a concrete donut like SOM’s Hirshhorn Museum, or a stone prism like I.M. Pei’s East Wing, or another box with columns like most of the other museums.

But you decide you didn’t have to fill that square or make a solid. Instead, you’ll make a gem. Your museum will be smaller, lacier, more mutable. Gold in the morning and glowing at night. The NMAAHC works like a power player who only speaks in a whisper. You have to lean in.

The $540 million museum, which officially opens on Saturday, September 24, couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment. The twin missions embodied in its clunky name seem to speak directly to the events of this year. #Blacklivesmatter has foregrounded African-Americans’ continuous struggle for equality, making the museum’s history section painfully current, while African-American excellence in popular culture has never been more obvious—even as the push for representation on screen continues.

“We were all cursing when it didn’t open last year, but I think it has special power now,” says architect David Adjaye, the project’s lead designer. “Every generation thinks we know the story, we’ve grown past it, we’re integrated, we’re done, and then a decade later there is memory loss. We go back to stigmatizing and dividing. In the 18th and 19th century, museums were about understanding the world. Now [that] we understand the world, we have to understand each other.”

The museum, designed by a team of firms under the collaborative name Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR, bifurcates the history (downstairs) and the culture (upstairs). As all of the exhibits approach the mid-20th century, the difference between the two becomes muddled, symbolic of unfinished business. The placement of the NMAAHC, whose exhibits describe pain as well as uplift, puts struggle at the center of American identity. It made me think of that party invitation phrase, Your presence is our present. This museum, on that spot, would be important even if it were an empty shell. Luckily, it is far more than that.

The most striking element of the NMAAHC is the “Corona,” three stepped levels, and 3,600 bronze-colored cast aluminum panels, cast in a spiky filigree. These wrap the aboveground portion of the five-story building on all sides, interrupted periodically by angled cuts that allow select views of the monuments and the Mall from inside the galleries. The panels are suspended from a steel framework, allowing the museum’s column-free first floor to be sheathed in transparent glass with minimal mullions. A glass curtain wall set behind the panels seals out the weather.

Seventy percent of visitors are likely to approach from the south side of the building, crossing 14th Street from the National Museum of American History. On that side, a 175-foot “porch” made of angled steel and concrete (and indebted to Saarinen and Breuer) provides the necessary indication of how to get into a geometric solid. Sixty percent of the museum’s 400,000 square feet are underground, beneath the Corona and stretching under the lawn to the north and south. The galleries above can be reached by escalators snaking along the museum’s north and west sides.

WASHINGTON, DC -- 9/14/16 -- The "porch' area on the south side of the museum. Media Preview at The National Museum of African America History and Culture on the National Mall.… (PHOTO CREDIT: André Chung)
WASHINGTON, DC — 9/14/16 — The “porch’ area on the south side of the museum.
Media Preview at The National Museum of African America History and Culture on the National Mall.… (PHOTO CREDIT: André Chung)

“It is distinctive, and rightfully so,” says Phil Freelon, the project’s lead architect, who started as an unofficial consultant to the museum in the early 2000s, before it even had a collection. “I don’t think it is disrespectful or overly aggressive in how it diverges from the norm. Because the materiality and color are so dynamic, it could be almost ablaze at times, and at other times it is brownish and quiet. I love that about the facade. White marble is going to look pretty much the same every day.”

The design team worked hard to convince Congress that their choices were the right ones. While the architects acknowledge a whole range of 20th century influences, starting with Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum, one intuits that’s not how you get a museum built in the nation’s capital. Better to start by connecting the dots between contemporary architecture, 19th-century Washington, and older, vernacular traditions from the Southeast and from Africa.

“This building was a building where everything would mean something. Without the symbolism, it would leave a vacuum,” says Adjaye. “If congressmen are asking you questions, you can’t just say, It’s a building and it technically works. The arguments created resistance to tampering.”

I can’t look at the stepped corona without a ghostly overlay of the former Whitney. Others have seen Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column. But that vision does not negate the influence of the Yoruban carved wood caryatids Adjaye encountered in photographs during his research on African architecture. They bear crowns in the same distinctive shape.

One of these, by Nigerian sculptor Olowe of Ise, is displayed on the museum’s fourth floor. She too has made the journey from Africa to America. Literal references play for better politics: the crown’s shape comes from Nigeria, the screen pattern refers to New Orleans ironwork made by African-American craftsmen, the broad porch embodies the hospitality offered at even the humblest Southern residence. And, in the subtlest gesture of all, the angled sides of the Corona are at the same 17.5 degrees as the top of the Washington Monument. I’ve struggled with the one-to-one nature of this kind of symbolism, which pushes discussions of architectural history, not to mention that of the other museums on the mall, to the side.

The museum’s story is enriched, not enervated or made academic, by including the detour through another aspect of American culture, modernism, and the search for the not-neoclassical monument. Monumental Washington has fought off the twentieth century so many times that the architecture of the NMAAHC—No columns! No stone! Color!—is a breakthrough on multiple fronts. Looking back at the entries in the 2009 museum competition, the winning scheme is the only one darker than beige, with a silhouette made for trademarking.

WASHINGTON, DC -- 9/14/16 -- The metal screen covering the exterior of the museum is the distinctive feature that sets it apart from the other buildings that ring the National Mall. Media Preview at The National Museum of African America History and Culture on the National Mall. (PHOTO CREDIT: André Chung)
WASHINGTON, DC — 9/14/16 — The metal screen covering the exterior of the museum is the distinctive feature that sets it apart from the other buildings that ring the National Mall.
Media Preview at The National Museum of African America History and Culture on the National Mall. (PHOTO CREDIT: André Chung)

The new museum is also not shy of improving on those references. The heroic span of the 175-foot-long Porch (Guy Nordenson and Associates were the engineers for the superstructure) transforms Breuer’s rather foreboding bridge at the Whitney into a covered town square, one that will be up to eight degrees cooler than the Mall, thanks to breezes from a long, shallow fountain designed with landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.

It is the combination of apposite historical reference, an understanding of modernism, and judicious structural derring-do that place the the building firmly in the 21st century. “The Mall is a relentless space, with southern exposure, you just see people sweating as they go up and down. It’s almost comic,” Adjaye says. “The porch is a welcome gesture, even if you don’t go into the museum.”

WASHINGTON, DC -- 9/14/16 -- Modern installations detail the history of African Americans. Media Preview at The National Museum of African America History and Culture on the National Mall. (PHOTO CREDIT: André Chung)
WASHINGTON, DC — 9/14/16 — Modern installations detail the history of African Americans.
Media Preview at The National Museum of African America History and Culture on the National Mall. (PHOTO CREDIT: André Chung)

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SOURCE: Curbed, Alexandra Lange