Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture To Open After 100 Years in the Making

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  • August 17, 2016

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National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will open on the National Mall Sept. 24, but the effort to build the museum began more than 100 years ago. The inaugural exhibit, “A Century in the Making,” explores the journey toward fulfillment of this long-held dream, providing an overview of the century-long struggle that began in 1915 and its culminating achievements. Additional inaugural exhibits in the History Galleries of the new museum: Slavery and Freedom; Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876–1968; and A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond. Other galleries focus on themes ranging from Sports to Visual Arts.

Artifacts from the wreck of Portuguese slave ship, the São José, have made a trans-Atlantic journey to arrive at the Smithsonian for its debut. The items, recovered off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, are on long-term loan to the NMAAHC and will be on view when the museum opens. The arrival of the artifacts in the U.S. marks a milestone in the effort to advance understanding of the slave trade and showcases the results of the Slave Wrecks Project, a unique global partnership among museums and research institutions.

The São José artifacts, including iron ballast to weigh down the ship and its human cargo, remnants of shackles and a wooden pulley block, will be featured in NMAAHC’s inaugural exhibition entitled “Slavery and Freedom.” Beginning in the 15th century with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the exhibition will explore the complex story of slavery and freedom through personal stories that illuminate the economic and political legacies of slavery for all Americans.

The São José’s voyage was one of the earliest in the trans-Atlantic slave trade from East Africa to the Americas, which continued well into the 19th century. More than 400,000 East Africans are estimated to have made the Mozambique-to-Brazil journey between 1800 and 1865. The ship’s crew and some of the more than 400 enslaved on board were rescued after the ship ran into submerged rocks about 328 feet from shore. Tragically, more than half of the enslaved people perished in the violent waves. The remainder were resold into slavery in the Western Cape.

“Perhaps the single greatest symbol of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is the ships that carried millions of captive Africans across the Atlantic never to return,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of NMAAHC. “This discovery is significant because there has never been archaeological documentation of a vessel that foundered and was lost while carrying a cargo of enslaved persons. The São José is all the more significant because it represents one of the earliest attempts to bring East Africans into the trans-Atlantic slave trade—a shift that played a major role in prolonging that tragic trade for decades.”

The building design is the product of a collaboration of four design firms that formed Freelon Adjaye
Bond/SmithGroupJJR: The Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, Davis Brody Bond and the
SmithGroupJJR. The design of the building features two distinct design elements—the “Corona,” the
signature exterior feature that consists of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels weighing a total of
230 tons, and the “Porch,” which serves as the location for the main museum entrance on Madison Drive.

Lead designer David Adjaye has focused on the formal development of the building design and is the
creative force behind the building’s Corona. As the outer layer of the building, the Corona draws on
imagery from both African and American History, reaching toward the sky in an expression of faith, hope
and resiliency. The three-tiered shape is inspired by the Yoruban Caryatid, a traditional wooden column
that features a crown or corona at its top. The pattern of the exterior panels evokes the look of ornate
19th-century ironwork created by enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans and allows daylight to enter through
dappled openings. At night, the Corona glows from the light within, presenting a stunning addition to the
National Mall.

Adjaye designed the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver,
and Rivington Place and the Idea Store in London. He is the winner of the 1993 Royal Institute of British
Architects award. He has taught at the Royal College of Art, where he had previously studied, and at the
Architectural Association School in London. Adjaye has held distinguished professorships at the
universities of Pennsylvania, Yale and Princeton. He is currently the John C. Portman Design Critic in
Architecture at Harvard. Adjaye was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to architecture
in 2007, received the Design Miami/Year of the Artist title in 2011, the Wall Street Journal Innovator
Award in 2013 and the W.E.B. Du Bois medal from Harvard University.

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