The National Museum of African American of History and Culture tells a story in the design of the building, in addition to all of the galleries it houses. This museum has been debated for its contemporary design; mainly the idea that this design did not fit within the context of the national mall. While the architects considered a traditional building to house the museum, they felt that the traditional European design to which many of the national buildings have subscribed, many of which were built on the backs of slaves, did not fit this museum, and therefore fought for an innovative and inspirational design. The way in which one proceeds through the museum was designed to evoke the emotion of the gallery, be it heartache or hope, something that would not have been achieved as effectively if done so in a traditional building.
The architects of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, David Adjaye and Philip Freelon, worked together to create a monumental piece of art that would reflect the history of its contents and connect the people who visit the national mall. The designers had the challenge of deciding whether to design the museum to fit the context of the other museums on the national mall (traditional Greek and Roman influence) or design a contemporary, relevant building to reflect the paramount history it houses. Although facing much backlash, the designers were eventually able to leverage their design concept with its inspiring symbolism. While the design evolved from conceptual design to the final design, the core ideas remained. The designers knew the importance of their site and wanted to ensure that visitors were not separated from the Washington Monument. In doing so, they looked to African roots for inspiration. For the top half of the structure above ground, one sees the seemingly floating corona, “inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa”1 perched off of a glass curtain wall to allow for visual connectivity to the national mall. Similarly, the design of the main entrance to the structure is the welcoming porch, which can be connected back to roots in Africa and throughout the Diaspora, with a focus on the Caribbean and American South. The ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice was designed by Adjaye, inspired by “the intricate ironwork that was crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere,” where he elaborates:
“[W]e are looking towards the guild traditions of the South. The freed slaves would move into professional guilds, including the ironworking guild. There were very skilled African-American casters— a lot of the early architecture of Louisiana and the South was built by black people. So what we wanted to do was somehow acknowledge that important beginning of transition from the agrarian to the professional class, and to reference this powerful casting tradition.”2
The screen also plays a functional role in the design of the building, filtering the sunlight as it enters the building, while also “symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogues about race and to help promote reconciliation and healing.1” It allows the occupants to enjoy the museum at a comfortable temperature throughout the year by filtering the light entering the building; one of the aspects that make this museum the first Smithsonian to achieve LEED Gold.
The promenade was based on the simple concept of "progress". Understanding the history of African Americans and knowing some of what would be shown in the galleries, the architects wanted to ensure the gallery was evoking the proper emotions in the visitor experience. This meant keeping the earlier, darker history until the underground in a darker, heavier and colder structure, made of thick concrete and allowing no natural light to enter. From there, one proceeds through and upwards to the concourse for the main lobby area where one can bask in the prominence of the structure and decide where they would like to proceed. From the main lobby area moving upwards, one circulates around the perimeter of the building and around an inner core of galleries, which allows the public to see close up the glass curtain wall, steel structure and bronze frame. All of this frames a panoramic view of the national mall and curated views of other monuments. This inner core of galleries based on the upper levels focus on the contributions of African Americans in the fields of music, film, television, fashion and more. Upon reaching the top level, visitors are greeted with a clear view of the sky from underneath a glass ceiling, symbolizing the future and progress. The progression of the building from subterranean to light and air physically gives the visitor the sense of progress, ascension and ultimately, hope. The designers looked not only to history for inspiration, but the present and future to guide their design for the museum which sits boldly on the national mall.
National Museum of African American of History and Culture not only tells a story in the design of its galleries, but reinforces it with the design of the building. While some debate over the design, I believe its contemporary design fits the program of the building and its roots. It deserves to stand proudly.
Bunch, Lonnie G. "The Building." National Museum of African American History and Culture. National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2016. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.
Stromberg, Joseph. "Q&A: Architect David Adjaye On His Vision for the New Museum." Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, Feb. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.
- National Museum of African American & the Washington Monument, National Museum of African American. Personal photograph by author. 8 Dec. 2016.