While most galleries are built out of the need to house existing, perhaps expanding, collections, the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., had nothing to its name when it was conceptualized more than a decade ago. The framework was there: to become a space for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, to learn about the richness and diversity of the African-American experience. Armed with this and little more, the gallery’s director Lonnie Bunch set off on a 15-city roadshow of sorts, calling on people and communities to donate heirlooms and memorabilia from their closets and attics. A jaw-dropping 36,000 pieces were collected—an eclectic and often moving compilation that ranges from shards of tools and leg irons used by escaped slaves to one of Chuck Berry’s red Cadillacs and films detailing the atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan—with some 3,500 currently on show. Deep in the basement, a narrative history runs from the beginnings of the slave trade to the presidency of Barack Obama, while on the upper two floors, galleries shine a light on religion, music, and sport. British architect David Adjaye is behind the equally ambitious 37,000-square-meter triple-decker structure of inverted pyramids, which is topped by a corona recalling the celebratory headpieces on Yoruba sculptures from West Africa; an exterior cladding of bronze with filigree patterns nods to the decorative metalwork of African-American craftsmen from New Orleans and South Carolina. In the words of Bunch, “there are few things as powerful and as important as a people, as a nation that is steeped in its history.”
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“History in the Making”).