With much anticipation, we tuned into the long-awaited opening of the Smithsonian’s latest the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Having not followed the decade-long development process that led to Saturday’s opening, it strikes me as odd that this particular telling of US history had not been given form and place earlier. It’s lateness to the national scene makes the opening all the more moving and poignant.
Presided over the ceremony, President Obama set the tone opening with the words of James Baldwin, “For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.”
As the ceremony preceded our minds were already blessed with a mental picture of what’s inside. We were lucky to have visited a week previous when the museum opened, amid its furious final construction push. Looking past some of the blue taped and incomplete exhibits, our visit was nevertheless an incredible experience.
The museum set as its goal to map out the African American experience through stories and artifacts. However, at the groundbreaking in 2000 by President Bush, no artifacts existed. Traveling the country while the museum progressed, the team gathered thousands of objects each telling its own story, the amalgamation of all forming a representation of the total African American experience—or as becomes clear when you visit, what’s on display is really the “American” experience.
Gut wrenching and heart breaking at times the museum also inspires with stories of the first African American entrepreneurs, journalists, politicians, and many stories of unsung heroes who have made important contributions to American society, that the museum lifts from obscurity.
Proximity to the curated artifacts and state of the art technology helps to place you in the museums’ narrative. And if that did not leave you with a complete picture, the museums’ curators are readily on hand to answer any of your questions. We had several great chats on our tour and getting their verbal perspective really enhanced our understanding of what’s on display
Unlike any other museum food concession we have visited, Sweet Home Cafe, the museum’s lower floor restaurant, is not only a great refreshment stop but developed in a way so as to be an integral part of the museum’ narrative. Divided into four geographical section, Northern States, Agricultural South, Creole Coast and Western Range, Chef Jerome Grant has created a daily menu showing how much African American cuisine constitutes an important part of what we understand American cuisine to be.
At the back of the Cafe is long counter replicating the experience of lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement. Enjoying some of the delicious dishes while gazing at large photographic representations of lunch-counter protests is a poignant reminder of America’s long struggle towards equality and freedom.
There is no doubt that much of what I experienced during my visit was new to me. A great learning experience that every American should share. It’s open now. and I’d say worth a trip to our nation’s capital just for the experience.
The first weekend 28,000 visitors booked time slots to visit the museum, so it looks like it will be packed for the near future. Make sure you book well ahead of your visit. www.nmaahc.si.edu/a>
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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