Reflections on the National Museum of African American History & Culture

Written by: Janay Richmond

Date: November 02, 2016

optimized-dsc04882Every month, staff at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy gather for a staff activity, an opportunity for us to step away from our computers and bond.

In my 1.5 years here, we’ve done everything from yoga and packing up our office in the month prior to our recent move to touring the offices of one of our former board members, Dorothy Height. This fall I pounced on a chance to secure tickets to the hottest event in town, a trip to the new National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC).

It took us a long time to get here. Blacks began advocating for a museum 100 years ago and legislation was before Congress 13 times before they finally acted on it. It was certainly a celebration that the time finally came for a museum where people from all around the world can now learn the Black American’s story.

The museum also represents a milestone for African American philanthropy. While its founding donors list contains many of the country’s largest foundations, 74 percent of donors who gave at least one million are African American. “This is a staggering amount of generosity,” Emmett Carson, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, told The Washington Post. “It’s a symbol that black . . . philanthropy is not an oxymoron.”

After my initial excitement died down to normal levels, I realized that this would be a deeply impactful experience for many of us, like those of us for whom our nation’s legacy of slavery and injustice towards Black people hit home most.

We walked into the experience mindful of that factor and gave our fellow staffers the space needed to experience all that the carefully thought out structure had to offer. It was fantastic to experience the space and the moment in history together. Although we didn’t get to experience all 322,600 square feet of the museum, we reflected on the lasting impression it left on us all. I wanted to share some of those reflections with you all, too. Read my colleagues’ responses below:

“I really appreciated the sections of the museum devoted to community building, organizing and political empowerment. Having studied the civil rights movement extensively many years ago as an undergrad, it was moving to see those stories retold so well in the museum. I also loved how the museum gave real and serious attention to music, sports, politics and all aspects of life.”

                — Aaron Dorfman, President and CEO

I started on the top floor and worked my way down, though I wish I had avoided the long lines and done the bottom floor’s history galleries first! I’m saving them for my next visit because you can easily spend an hour on each level. The museum’s collection is presented in very visually creative ways. The top floor with the culture galleries is the epitome of this creativity. The floor holds so many artifacts, and the thought of how many people contributed to building the museum’s collection from scratch was overwhelmingly touching. Glass cases jut out from the walls at different depths, many featuring famous outfits; a wide array of art, posters, and records hang above, including a neon Soul Train sign; video screens feature dance, song, and film; and you can find the statue whose crown inspired the museum’s building inverted pyramid design. I highly recommend a visit!”

                — Caitlin Duffy, Senior Associate for Learning and Engagement

“What struck me most about visiting NMAAHC is the depth and variety; it’s several museums in one. I started with the underground portion of the museum, which takes you on a journey through a history of Black America. While this section includes the requisite informational exhibits and countless videos from the Smithsonian’s exhaustive library, I was most struck by the interactive sections, which included the opportunity to explore a section of a reconstructed slave ship and to experience the claustrophobic environment of a slave cabin. Equally as impressive is the upstairs portion, which features art, sport, music, pop culture and several touchscreen activities. The care put into each exhibit is impressive, and I can’t wait to make a return trip when the crowds are smaller.”

                — Peter Haldis, Senior Associate for Communications

“I believe that one of the most important things we can do as citizens is to explore our history. Diving back into the past allows us to see how far we’ve come, see how far we must go, and perhaps most importantly, it allows us to understand how we got here. The National Museum of African American History & Culture does just that. Even the biggest history buff or the most woke among us will find immense value in the story behind the millions of Americans of African descent who live in America today. The nation’s troubled history is exposed and explored and emotion is ever-present. Celebration and triumph are mixed together with the heart-wrenching accounts of suffering drawn from real people across all periods of time. In my three hours, I was touched most by the exhibit on the life and death of Emmett Till. Drawn away in a corner room, the casket of Emmett sits in a backdrop of a five-meter picture from his funeral. Church hymns play over the speaker, and videos of his mother describing her horror make for an overwhelming experience.”

                — Henry Lagrimini, Membership Intern

“While I wasn’t able to see every single section, I really appreciated the ‘Musical Crossroads’ section, which gave me an opportunity to educate myself further on the music that has influenced so much of American arts and culture. Having had deep interest in Hip-Hop and taking classes on it in college, it was wonderful to see how the museum dedicated itself to telling that story and show that perspective. Hip-Hop culture has always been a huge driver in developing contemporary trends and styles, so I loved being in a place that took ownership of that.”

                — Jack Rome, Communications Intern

“The Crown Jewel is resplendent in its majesty, sitting on a hill, holding its treasures of the beauty, pain and glory of a people’s untold story and journey.  This time we get to tell the story, in our own space, in our own words, in our own style and with our own inflections. For we are master storytellers. Had to be to preserve what’s ours. Had to be, so we could instill pride and confidence so the young ‘uns could endure each day. Had to be so our children, grandchildren and future generation would know the truth, the whole truth, from us. We get to show and tell that we are philanthropists. Have always been, for that’s part of how we have survived. Through the generosity of the brave and courageous ones before us who gave the ultimate gift of their lives, took chances to save and liberate, gave us shoulders to stand on and reach, gave from their measly earnings to support the church and community, and saved and tucked away treasures that catalogued the proof of our presence and contributions, finally now on display. We have been giving, long before it had a fancy name. We give because it is who we are, how we are, and because our survival depended on it.”

                — Beverley Samuda-Wylder, Director of Human Resources and Administration

After six years in D.C., I’ve been privileged enough to visit and experience each of the Smithsonian museums more than once. I love them all, but the NMAAHC takes its place now as my favorite of the bunch. By far the most emotionally arresting space in the museum for me – and there are many – was the hall devoted to exploring and interpreting the history of the American War for Independence in the context of slavery. How could the authors of our Declaration of Independence square their soaring rhetoric and their fight for freedom with their brutal oppression of enslaved African Americans? The hall poses this question with a breathtaking display that includes a statuary series of Thomas Jefferson, the names of the people he held in slavery, and some of the Black leaders of the Revolutionary period who hoped the colonies’ declaration of freedom and liberty for all really would mean ‘for all.’ As we know now, it did not. This complicated story is our story, and we should do all we can to better understand it. I’m grateful the historians and designers that worked on the NMAAHC tackled it with so much thought and intention, and I can’t wait to go back and learn more.”

                — Ryan Schlegel, Senior Research and Policy Associate


Janay Richmond is Manager of Nonprofit Membership and Engagement at NCRPFollow @JanayRichmond1 and @NCRP on Twitter.

Photos by Caitlin Duffy.