Step into the gigantic elevator at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and take a trip through time as you go down into the bowels of the museum. In an almost-magical touch, the walls of the glass elevator are painted with notable years from the last four centuries.
A visit starts on the lowest level, three floors below ground. It’s dark. The public spaces are cramped with low ceilings. The history here is dark, too. This is the beginning of the American experience for Africans brought to our shores in shackles.
The exhibit is comprehensive as it explains the supply and demand of enslaved Africans sent to the Americas to work in the sugar fields, the cotton fields. One wall lists all the ships and details their “cargo,” including the number of human beings who were taken aboard and how many survived their ocean passage. My adult children found this one exhibit among the most notable of their visit.
As time goes by, visitors rise through the three levels as the story moves from slavery toward emancipation, Jim Crow laws and the fight for equal rights and the accomplishments of African Americans from Phyllis Wheatley to Barack Obama. Look, there’s the shawl Queen Victoria gave Harriet Tubman, a tiny Emancipation Proclamation Union soldiers read to enslaved Americans, an interactive display built into a replica of the Greensboro Lunch Counter.
Some of the stories we knew: Sally Hemings, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker. Others were new to us. My son found inspiration in the story of Robert Smalls, an enslaved South Carolinian who later represented his home state in the U.S. House of Representatives. I lingered at the exhibit of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Lines are long throughout this wildly-popular museum on the National Mall. Even with timed (free) tickets, we had to wait in a line to get inside. Once inside, we had to wait in lines for elevators, the gift shop, the Sweet Home Cafe. I didn’t mind skipping those but I was sorry I didn’t wait for the Emmett Till Memorial. It had a very long line. Although the places is packed, everyone is respectful, kind and courteous. I’m often overwhelmed by crowds but not here. There was so much to see, to learn, to ponder.
Our attention was riveted to the history exhibits and our emotions and imaginations were spent by the time we reached the Contemplative Court. This quiet room dominated by a water feature is a welcome respite after the cruel/sad/uplifting stories of the history galleries.
Even though I set aside an entire day for this seven-level museum for our family’s visit, it wasn’t enough. We had spent nearly five hours in the history galleries. Although we ran through the wonderful audio-visual displays on sports, business, culture and the arts, they needed more time and attention than we could muster. Tired, hungry and sore, we reluctantly headed for the door.
We will be back. We’ve already made plans.
Ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman