I had the privilege of touring the African American History Museum in Washington D.C. last week, more correctly named the National Museum of African American History & Culture. What a treat. I’ve been wanting to see this museum since before it opened last September, and it did not disappoint.
Let me tell you, though, that it’s no easy task to get in. It’s an online feeding frenzy beginning at 6:30 a.m. to get an appointed time slot for that day. You see, while the entrance is free, they only allow a certain number of individuals and groups through each day. And generally for an individual, what you do is go to the website the morning you’d like to go, and hope for the best.
So there I was in front of my laptop in my hotel room, still in my jammies, prepared to hit the link for the first time slot of the day (10:30 a.m.), which is just what I did. As I confidently began clicking through, (yay, it’s available!) I came to one of those anti-robot tests. Let’s just say, before I could prove I was human, the timeslots were gone! On to the 11 a.m. slot – same thing. By now, my husband was frantically trying to get me an entry as well. I jumped ahead to 3:00 p.m. Bingo! I got through! Whew!
A word of advice when you get there: Do not pass go; go directly to the information desk, where they will give you a map and advice as to how to make your way through this beautiful museum. I’m glad I did that, because as you enter, it’s somewhat of a large empty room and not intuitive as to where to start. And the advice she gave: start at the bottom (3 floors down) and work your way up. So that, I did.
Reading the embroidery on this grain sack took my breath away. Such a personal and sad story.
In the bowels of this museum you find the depths of depravity, starting with slavery in Africa and Europe, slave boats to America, auction blocks and families being torn apart, moving towards and through the Civil War, followed by lynchings and other unspeakable acts, the KKK, segregation and discrimination. The floors are filled with photos and depictions, messages to read and listen to, and it is both moving and depressing all at the same time.
By the time I made my way up to the ground floor, I was ready to go. I was exhausted after a day of walking around DC, followed by nearly 2 hours of looking at our horrible US history. (and I actually thought that I had been through the entire museum)
But keep on, my friend, because where the lower floors are dark and depressing, the upper floors are full of fun and frivolity! While our more recent past isn’t all rosy, you’ll definitely be drawn to some of these more light-hearted galleries! One is devoted to music (think Count Basie to Chuck Barry to Jimmy Hendrix to Whitney Houston, and all the greats in-between, along with their fashion! Even Chuck Barry’s cherry-red Cadillac is in there!). Then there’s what I think of as the sports gallery, depicting the great Jesse Owens all the way to the Williams sisters, along with exceptional basketball, football and other sports’ athletes. There are areas devoted to the contributions of African American leaders, politicians, soldiers, and so much more. Actually, there was so much to see, read and listen to, that I couldn’t nearly do it justice. I surely missed half of the displays without question. And I fully plan to return on a future trip to DC.
So my other piece of advice is to get in as early as you are able and plan on spending a full day at the museum, followed by the gift shop. And don’t worry about lunch – the Sweet Home Cafe will take care of you, with four distinct regional offerings, as well as your typical burger/hot dog/salad choices.
As you end your day at the museum, be sure to find your way to the reflection room for some quiet contemplation. This beautiful room (though loud, actually!) is centered around a circular waterfall dropping from the ceiling, with sayings inscribed on the four walls. Just stop for a moment and take it all in.
If you’re not left speechless as you leave this museum, you weren’t paying attention.
To find your way there, as you can see in the photo, the museum is right next to the Washington Monument, just to the northeast, at the edge of the National Mall. The closest Metro stop is at Federal Triangle, a couple blocks away.
For information on the Museum and gaining entry: https://nmaahc.si.edu/
For the Sweet Home Cafe Menu: https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/sweet-home-cafe