My friend Joel and I took a trip to Washington DC and decided to head to The National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is currently the newest museum in the Smithsonian and both of us have been itching to check it out since it opened. On previous trips we could not secure tickets but I managed to get some by planning ahead and it was worth the work!
Getting Tickets To The National Museum of African American History and Culture
The museum is open every day of the year from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m except December 25th. Tickets used to be very difficult to get but as the museum has been open a while now they are getting easier. As of the date of publication (June 2019) you are still required to have tickets for timed entry on the weekends but during the week from March to August you can walk up and enter after 1 p.m. That will be pushing it to finish everything by closing but you can do it. If you want to get in earlier you must have a timed pass.
From September to February you can walk up Monday through Friday all day since it’s not peak season.
If you want to have tickets ahead of time here are your options:
Passes are issued the first Wednesday of every month online three months in advance. When I did mine they went live at 9 a.m. You can get up to six this way.
Passes are issued same day online beginning at 6:30 a.m. EST each day. Then another batch is released at 9:30 and every half hour until they run out. You can get four this way. These passes are not available by phone and subject to availability.
Heading to DC? Be sure to visit Mount Vernon!
When you arrive at the museum you have to go through a metal detector and your bag will be checked. There is a list on their website of items not allowed in the museum (although I wanted to note I brought in bottled water even though it says no outside food and drink and no one stopped me in spite of seeing it during bag check.) So bring your water with you to stay hydrated!
One of the first things I noticed about the museum (and throughout it to be honest) is the lack of signage. Several times while going through we had to back track to not miss exhibits and that same feeling happened in the lobby. No signs of “start here” or such so we went over to the big desk with the hopes of finding a map or someone to point us in the right direction. A very helpful man informed us they were out of printed maps and I could take a picture of his laminated map with my phone.
As is popular with many newer museums this one is best traveled in a certain order and in this case it’s from the basement up. So you go down an escalator and then through another exhibit area (???) to wait for a large elevator. A very passionate man gave us a talk at the elevator and then they loaded all of us in and sent us down. One of the walls was glass and painted on the wall going down was a timeline (this was cool). So we knew it was 1400 when the door opened.
Slavery and Freedom 1400 – 1877
This is the lowest level of the museum and honestly the one we spent the least amount of time in. I would have LOVED to spend more but there were a few factors that made us move through quickly.
The first is that there is supposed to be timed entry into the museum so you have time to walk through slowly, read and digest and not be too jostled. But because the elevator dumps everyone in that spot every 15 minutes or so it is PACKED.
The second is that the space is dark and cramped and it just felt suffocating on it’s lowest level. Now that being said this may have been a deliberate choice while we are talking about slave trading. And if it was it was very effective.
They seemed to do a good job covering the expected topics- rebellions (this was fascinating to me), trade routes, legislation about trading and some slaves and slave owners who made news at the time. I couldn’t really read anything in depth without people stepping in the way which also made pictures difficult so I was happy when we decided to skip ahead into a room with much higher ceilings and better breathing room.
In this space we were able to study the objects and plaques a bit more. They dealt with the founding of the country, the Revolutionary War (and the slaves who fought in it on both sides) and had some really fascinating and horrifying artifacts.
They had many pieces of the propaganda used to recruit slaves by both sides during the Revolutionary War. Both sides promised freedom but neither delivered after the war.
There were several examples of shackles throughout the bottom levels including some that were so small they could have only been for children.
The amount of cotton produced during this period in the US was absolutely astonishing to read. They had much information about how hard the slaves worked to keep production and how they were punished if they did not.
This is the remains of an actual auction block used for purchasing people. As I looked at this I wished for the day that this will seem like something out of fiction instead of recent history.
Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968
This was the level I was most excited about because it was the time period I knew the least about. The early part of the Reconstruction is something we always breezed over in history class heading into the more “exciting” Civil Rights movements and such. So I was surprised to walk into this section and find a large picture of many elected minority leaders who seemed to make significant changes while in office- some were even in the US Congress right after the Civil War! Public schools were funded, voting was for all (well men anyway), public transportation became available, and some big economic programs were developed to help.
And then the next thing I see it all seems to be undone. It either wasn’t mentioned what happened or I missed it (which may have happened since I couldn’t find signs of where to go). Regardless we seemed to jump from a time of success back to struggle. Later that night at dinner we spent some time googling to kind of fill in the gaps of what we needed to know. So that was disappointing but the rest of the display was very thorough and covered many interesting topics.
There was a big focus on churches as cultural and community life for African-Americans all over the US as well as some sections that highlighted denominations that were predominately minority.
The whole idea just seems ridiculous in 2019 but they had MANY examples of signs, water fountains and other items showing the separation.
They had an actual train car you could go in to see the white v colored sections.
There was much less about Martin Luther King Jr then I had thought there would be but this is a bucket he washed his feet in after one of the marches.
I just saw a show about the Freedom Rides last year so this was cool to see.
They had some beautiful tribute pieces.
There were also some images in this section that were too disturbing to post. They did have those images CLEARLY marked in the museum so if you had children with you or just preferred not to see them they could be avoided. In this section there was also a large exhibit about Emmett Till which was touching- especially as his mother provided it.
A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond
This was the stuff everyone wanted to see and the section wasn’t huge so I didn’t get a ton of pictures. But it was amazing seeing the pictures of African-American actors, musicians, politicians and others who made their mark during this time.
I learned a great deal about different organizations who continued to work- especially during the Vietnam Era.
This was Oprah’s first appearance (more to come).
And there was a lovely tribute to the Obama family.
This floor ended with some wonderful quotes.
What Else To See
After finishing up those floors it can be really difficult to process what you have seen. So directly outside the exit is this Contemplative Court. It’s stunning with sunlight and constantly running water to allow the noises around you to not seem so loud. It has benches and places to stand as well as quotes on the wall. Some people just took a walk through and others sat in silence.
From the very top of the building the views of DC are stunning. Joel captured me taking a moment to drink it all in after a long day.
A creative shot of the view using something fancy on the camera that I don’t really understand.
The sports gallery was particularly impressive. Memorabilia from athletes significant in all their fields- Jesse Owens, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Serena and Venus Williams and Jackie Robinson were just a FRACTION of the athletes represented. There was also an art gallery with stunning pieces.
It will surprise no one who knows me that my favorite section had the musicians. We saw clothes from Michael Jackson, Little Richard, Prince and SO MANY other incredible musicians. I was like a kid in a candy store running from display to display exclaiming everything!
Chuck Berry’s car was a thing of beauty.
Oprah has her own special exhibit. It’s the story of her life and lots of interesting tidbits about the TV show. I loved it as someone who grew up watching her- very nostalgic.
There is also a more thorough display on prominent African-American doctors, inventors and other leaders. Just story after story of leaders in the United States who made incredible discoveries and made progress for all Americans.
Who Should Visit The National Museum of African American History and Culture
While I think this museum is important for every person to see I did want to give a heads up about having children in there. Besides the obvious graphic pictures and content there is VERY little that is interactive. It’s a lot of standing and reading and looking at pictures. We saw plenty of late middle school/high schoolers who were very respectful and appeared to take it seriously but most of the kids younger than that were bored out of their minds. So just something to take into consideration if you visit.
Joel and I spent four hours in the museum and EASILY could have spent six if it wasn’t so crowded and we had been able to really study everything. That being said- we aren’t normal when it comes to our time in museums. The average visit according to their website is about two hours and people like us (apparently it’s called “dwelling time”) usually average about six hours.