While most galleries are built out of the need to house existing, perhaps expanding, collections, the Smithsonianâ€™s new National Museum of African American History & CultureÂ 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 diversityÂ of the African-American experience. Armed with this and little more, the galleryâ€™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 collectedâ€”an eclectic and often moving compilation that ranges from shards of tools and leg irons used by escaped slaves to one of Chuck Berryâ€™s red Cadillacs and films detailing the atrocities of the Ku Klux Klanâ€”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, â€śthere are few things as powerful and as important as a people, as a nation that is steeped in its history.â€ť
This article originally appeared in theÂ October/NovemberÂ print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śHistory in the Makingâ€ť).