Review: The Smithsonian African American Museum Is Here at Last. And It Uplifts and Upsets.

 
September 15, 2016
WASHINGTON -- On a late summer day in 1963, 200,000 Americans made the Washington Monument the compass needle for a new direction in history, up and forward, when they gathered at its base, then marched a mile or so on to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach -- sing, really -- a sermon on racism and a dream of change.

On an early autumn day this Saturday, just yards from the monument, the compass itself will, symbolically speaking, become fully visible, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens to the public. To paraphrase the preacher: It's here at last, here at last. And it's more than just impressive. It's a data-packed, engrossing, mood-swinging must-see.

Rising in three low, inverted-pyramid tiers, the building occupies what had been the last undeveloped museum site on the National Mall. Its design, by the Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye, is unlike any of the others. They are of white or buff stone or concrete; this one, covered in metal panels, is a deep black-brown. The other museums reflect light; this one absorbs it, making it look, despite its size, discreet and recessive, about silhouette rather than bulk.

That may not have been the intended effect. The initial plan was to cast the facade panels, perforated with decorated patterns, in bronze. When that proved too costly, painted aluminum was substituted, with a loss of reflective sheen. In midday sunlight, the building looks rusted and a little shaggy, like a giant magnet bristling with metal filings.

The reward comes in repeated viewing. Most Mall museums are squat blocks, rooted in neo-Classical tradition: Timeless grandeur and stability are their messages, and you barely look at them twice. The new museum seems to change texture at every encounter, giving it visual intrigue and also implying a more contemporary understanding of culture's fleet, contingent, it-depends-on-who's-looking dynamics.

Importantly, it also carries significant trans-Atlantic references. The triple-tiered silhouette, and a deep flexed-roof porch over the Mall-facing side, draw on features in African architecture and sculpture. (The museum's insistence that the building is in the form of a Yoruba crown is off-base, however. The motif is more likely derived from the stepped capitals on figurative veranda posts carved for Yoruba courts.) The filigree of the facade panels was inspired by African-American grillwork in South Carolina and Louisiana, which had West African roots. (A piece in the inaugural collection display, of a tracery cross made by the great 19th-century Southern ironworker Solomon Williams to mark the grave of his wife, Laide, suggests how gorgeous such work could be.)

All these references are subtle, glancing, maybe strategically vague. Race is one of the things that kept plans for this partly government-funded museum stalled in Congress for decades. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum cost $540 million, with $270 million raised privately and the rest from federal funds. Some politicians claimed it would draw far too narrow and marginal an audience to earn its keep. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a staunch nonsupporter, warned that approving an African-American museum would only open floodgates to demands by other groups.

Given the resistance, it's easy to see why the museum's founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, has been at pains to emphasize the Americanness of the museum. The emphasis is clear on the institution's website (nmaahc.org), where, of four "pillars upon which the NMAAHC stands," one is the mandate "to explore what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture."

This is a plausible statement. But it's also too close to being a piece of feel-good Smithsonian-speak. And taken as such, it rings hollow to many at a time when violence is hammering African-Americans. And it is to the credit of Mr. Bunch and his curators that, despite diplomatic words, they have made centuries-old history of that violence clear in the opening display of some 3,500 objects, selected from the 40,000 in the museum's collection.

The extremely complex narrative, with uplift and tragedy seemingly on a fixed collision course, spreads over five floors of galleries, three below ground, two above, with public spaces -- a vast reception area; an atrium with a theater and cafe -- in between. The three-level "History" section underground -- on broad themes of slavery, segregation and the pivotal year 1968 -- is reached by elevator or a spiraling ramp, and holds some of the oldest and most disturbing material.

The story starts with slavery in Africa (though its long pre-European presence there is brushed by quickly), and then in the Americas. The most eye-catching relic of it here is an intact 1800s slave cabin from a plantation on Edisto Island in South Carolina; but the most piercing one is a lockable iron neck-ring, so small that it could have fit only a child. Words speak loudly, too. A handwritten receipt confirms the sale of a teenage girl and "her future issue." A full-scale modern sculpture of Thomas Jefferson stands before a wall listing some of the slaves he owned, most identified by one name: Jenny, Orange, Tomo, Phoebe, Unknown.

The section alternates its presentation of slavery with more upbeat-sounding subjects, like the role played by black patriots in the American Revolution. This pattern, which is probably the only way to go to create an impression of telling a balanced story -- it's certainly the standard museum way -- continues throughout the "History" section, with often powerfully jarring results.

Its second level, "The Segregation Era," gives valuable attention to the topic of black entrepreneurship, about which many Americans probably know little. But what stops you in your tracks is the sight of a white satin Ku Klux Klan hood, shimmery and soiled, sitting in a case with photographs of lynchings on display nearby.

It's great that the museum mixes everything together: It means you can't just select a comfortable version of history. At the same time, you're given some warnings. The museum frames certain things -- lynching photographs, for example -- within red lines, alerting viewers to their emotionally loaded content. The potentially most upsetting object of all, the windowed coffin that once held the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly flirting with a white woman, is isolated in a chapel-like room of its own. Another space, empty of objects, has been set aside as a kind of viewer recovery station, and the museum has a grief counselor on call. (On my final preview visit recently, neither space was finished and viewable, and the history section overall remained a work in progress.)

On the third and uppermost history level, called "1968 to Today," the atmosphere changes, feels less funereal. Maybe this is because we're now closer to our own time, and personalities and events are more familiar. Or because the installation is suddenly buzzy with multimedia information. History starts moving at a breathless but measurable clip, hero by hero -- Angela Davis, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Anita Hill -- and movement by movement, from Black Is Beautiful, to Black Panthers, to Black Lives Matter.

Politics and pop culture merge; they did in earlier material too, but here you can really see it happening: a mural for Resurrection City, created by protesters occupying the Mall during the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, is on view around the corner from a reconstructed "Oprah" set. (Ms. Winfrey contributed $21 million to the museum; the atrium theater is named for her.)

The effect is confusing, but history is confusing. If it isn't, it's not history; it's fiction, as in the case of the narrative account of Modernism propagated by most of our art museums. Mr. Bunch and his curators understand this and they keep the story complicated, lobbing more topics and words in our direction than you can possibly hope to catch, never mind absorb, in one visit. (Even so, important things are all but left out. Maybe I missed something, but the subject of AIDS, which has taken so many African-American lives, receives scant mention, and identity struggles surrounding sexual orientation and gender are played down.)

The buzz intensifies further in the "Community" galleries upstairs on the third floor, which include large sections devoted to the black presence in the military and in sports. The Tuskegee Airmen rightly get attention; one of their World War II biplanes is prominently displayed elsewhere on the premises. At the same time, the glorification of patriotism is neatly checked by the presence, printed large on a wall, of a 1943 wartime poem that Langston Hughes addressed to his American homeland: "Everything that hitler/And mussolini do/Negroes get the same/Treatment from you."

White America, the message is -- or one message is -- repeatedly forces black America into a stance of resistance and dissent. Among sports treasures, there is a rack of medals earned by the track-and-field star Carl Lewis and a leotard worn by the gymnast Gabby Douglas in her first competitive season. And there's a sculptural tableau in which the 1968 Mexico Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos greet the "Star-Spangled Banner" with raised fists. (Mr. Carlos, then 23, and Mr. Smith, 24, were quickly expelled from the Olympic Village and sent home.)

Some paintings -- by McArthur Binion, Mavis Pusey and William T. Williams -- are entirely abstract; others overtly topical. In still others, political references reveal themselves slowly, increasing their impact. If you look carefully at a 1956 Crucifixion scene by David C. Driskell, you'll find a ghostly image of Mr. Till's coffin in the background. If you could crawl under the witty, jazzy sculpture "Mothership (Capsule)," by the Washington artist Jefferson Pinder, you'd find supports made of wood salvaged from President Obama's 2009 Inauguration Day platform.

There's another Mothership on view for the opening, too, this one a 1,200-pound aluminum stage prop with flashing lights once used in the 1990s by the Afro-Futurist musician George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic band. It's in the "Music" galleries, which are pure heaven. If nothing else draws crowds into the museum, they will come to see Chuck Berry's cherry-red Cadillac, Jimi Hendrix's vest and Michael Jackson's fedora, and to hear, in an old film, Mahalia Jackson sing "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." Ms. Jackson performed at the 1963 march. When Dr. King's prepared speech was winding down, she called out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" And he did.

When I was in the "Music" galleries a week or so ago, with the installation still very much underway, a group of young women, possibly docents in training, came through on a tour. One woman stopped in front of a music video, stared for a minute, and burst out, "That's my grandfather." Everyone gathered around. The performer was the jazz pianist Fats Waller (born Thomas Wright Waller). "I think I'm going to cry!" she said. But didn't. She beamed, and took cellphone pictures to show her family.

I suspect there are going to be a lot of recognitions and reunions, smiles and tears, in this museum in the days and years ahead, right across the American spectrum. I also suspect -- hope, actually -- that the museum will never be finished, or consider itself so; that its take on African-American history, which is American history, stays fluid, critical and richly confused: real, in other words.

The New York Times
By Holland Cotter
Photo by Jeff McCrum