Museum 'Must-See' Dedicated to Black History, Culture

'NYT' review of Smithsonian's long-awaited museum, set to open next Saturday
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 16, 2016 3:48 PM CDT
A Century-Long Project: DC's Black History Museum
A statue of pioneer Clara Brown, who was born a slave in Virginia around 1800, is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Wednesday.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A week from Saturday, a 130-year-old bell from a church erected by slaves will ring to herald the grand opening of a 400,000-square-foot DC museum that's been talked about since 1915, NPR reports. The idea for that museum, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, was first bandied about by black Civil War veterans shortly after the turn of the century, but funding issues and politics kept it from being built for decades—until support was permanently reinvigorated in 2003, hundreds of millions of dollars were raised (including from celebrity donors such as Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Jordan), and ground was broken on the National Mall in 2012.

On Thursday, the New York Times reviewed the museum, which NPR notes is mostly underground, with the bottom level set up to simulate the darkness of slavery. Some snippets from the Times on this "data-packed, engrossing, mood-swinging must-see" that both "uplifts and upsets":

  • Art critic Holland Cotter comments on the building's outward aesthetics—and at first glance, he admits it "looks rusted and a little shaggy, like a giant magnet bristling with metal filings." But all good things come to those who keep observing, with ever-changing textures that mesmerize and "significant trans-Atlantic references" that add context to African-American history.
  • The galleries are spread over five floors, with the three underground "History" levels—featuring some of the "oldest and most disturbing material"—devoted to the themes of slavery, segregation, and the year 1968, a watershed moment in the civil rights movement. Among the haunting artifacts: a lockable iron neck-ring that could only have fit a child.
  • Cotter praises the inclusion of devastating items such as these, noting that it "means you can't just select a comfortable version of history." And that somber feel continues with lynching photos, a KKK hood, and the "potentially most upsetting object of all": a coffin that once held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, said to have been murdered for flirting with a white woman. Cotter notes the museum has a grief counselor available to help those who may have a difficult time.
  • The "uplift" is evident in the plentiful multimedia displays dedicated to black Revolutionary patriots and WWII's Tuskegee Airmen, black entrepreneurs, and the heroes and movements found in the uppermost "1968 to Today" level, including those for Shirley Chisholm, the Black Panthers, and Black Lives Matter. A "Communities" gallery boasts relics from famous black sports figures such as Carl Lewis and gymnast Gabby Douglas, and "Culture" and "Music" galleries offer a glimpse into the songs, art, and artists that have informed and inspired the black community.
Read Cotter's entire Times review, including why he hopes the museum "will never be finished." (More Longform stories.)

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