A large portion of the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s exterior is covered in a corona of bronze-colored panels—3,600 in all and weighing 230 tons total, each featuring a latticework pattern representative of the decorative ironwork forged by slaves in 19th-century New Orleans. And that’s just the beginning of the creativity and symbolism that has gone into Washington’s newest Smithsonian venue.
The museum is organized chronologically, and visitors are encouraged to experience it from the bottom to the top. The lowest level represents the darkest days of the African-American experience—slavery and the struggle for freedom. Exhibits include information on the world’s as well as domestic slave trade, a bill of sale for a teenage slave named Polly, iron ankle shackles, and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal and the lace shawl given to her by Queen Victoria.
The next level addresses segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, northern migration and the development of all-black towns. Here, visitors can view Emmitt Till’s casket and narrative on the events surrounding his death, perhaps the museum’s most moving—and heartbreaking—exhibit. Moving up another floor, visitors will see Changing America, displays on events from 1968 to the present—Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the Black Power Movement, Black Studies programs at colleges and universities, and Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the galleries aboveground, the museum’s focus shifts from history to community and culture—and takes on a more joyful aura—to explore topics such as music, the visual arts and expression. The second floor offers an education and resource center for genealogical exploration and includes an informative display on the search for and retrieval of artifacts from the sunken slave ship São José.
The third floor’s Community galleries focus on the African-American experience as it relates to faith, the press, enterprise, education, health care, sports and politics. The progress made can be seen in the juxtaposition of a display celebrating the first three black graduates (including two former slaves) of West Point with another on the accomplishments of world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.
The fourth and final floor (there’s a fifth floor, but it has no exhibits) is dedicated to Cultural Expressions, such as cuisine, dance, literature, entertainment and fashion (did you know black fashion designer Ann Lowe created the dress Jacqueline Bouvier wore for her wedding to John F. Kennedy?).
D.C. Nighttime Tours
There are distinct advantages to waiting until the sun goes down to explore the city’s iconic treasures. There are fewer crowds, making it easier to snap that perfect picture or stand back and take in the view. Plus, the buildings and monuments take on a beautifully luminescent glow not possible in the harsh light of day. And maybe most importantly, some of the memorials are meant to be viewed at night.
Case in point: the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The 19 larger-than-life statues—representing an advance squad making its way across the Korean landscape—cast eerie shadows, and the fear on their partially illuminated faces is almost frightening. Other stops on nighttime tours (there are several to choose from) include the World War II, Vietnam Veterans, Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, as well as the White House and Capitol.
National Portrait Gallery
While it’s exciting to experience D.C.’s newest attractions, it’s nice to visit one of its venerable institutions, too. The National Portrait Gallery shares space with the Smithsonian American Art Museum inside the old U.S. Patent Office, a Greek Revival building that served as the site of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball. The Portrait Gallery focuses on individuals who have played a role in America’s story.
The America’s Presidents gallery includes playful sculptures and abstracts in addition to classic portraits. American Origins follows the country’s history from its discovery through the Revolutionary and Civil wars to the Gilded Age. The Struggle for Justice gallery focuses on figures from the fight for civil rights, and Champions looks at America’s sports heroes.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
A palpable quiet permeates this reverent space. Most visitors walk in knowing they’re going to come face to face with evil, and if they didn’t know before, they’ll certainly know by the time they leave. Museum exhibits begin with the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany and events, including Kristallnacht and passage of the Nuremburg laws, that led to the Final Solution.
Artifacts from Jewish ghettos, narratives of survivor testimonies and graphic images of emaciated prisoners bring a harsh dose of reality to a situation that seems too cruel to be real. But it was real, as hundreds of tattered shoes—confiscated from their prisoner owners—eerily attest. But amid the horror, there’s hope, as stories of those who risked their lives to save others are shared.