A Closer Look at the Design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Not surprisingly, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has been constructed and designed in a very thoughtful and symbolic manner. Six design firms competed in an international contest to win the honor of designing the museum, and in 2009, designer David Adjaye and architect Philip Freelon’s firm, the Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group, were the winners. The five-acre site was developed between 2012 and 2016, the museum is now open, and tickets are sold out through March of 2017.

Museum Location

The museum has a prime location which was the last available and viable site on the National Mall. A section of the site once contained a slave market. The museum website explains that to the north is the White House, to the east are more Smithsonians and the Capitol, and to the south and west are monuments to historic figure including Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. This placement of the museum honors the interwoven and central importance of African American history and culture in the United States.

Museum Structure

The museum was carefully designed to reflect and preserve both old and new traditions, voice, and styles of African American history and culture. Designer David Adjaye is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat and a widely traveled individual, having lived on several continents and visited every independent nation in Africa. He has rich experience in designing African American Museums and also designed the Nobel Peace Centre in Norway and the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. Architect Philip Freelon, founder of The Freelon Group, has designed many renowned cultural buildings in the U.S., including The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA and The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

The museum site explains that the basic architectural form is Greco-Roman in its “use of a base and shaft, topped by a capital or corona.” The three tiers of the corona are covered in panels of an intricate bronze-coated aluminum mesh or latticework. The corona shape is inspired by the three-tiered crowns from Yoruba in West Africa, and specifically, as The Washington Post shares, by “a Nigerian artist’s carving, which is displayed in the ‘Cultural Expressions’ gallery.” This metal work also pays tribute to the ironwork of enslaved African Americans in the Americas, particularly in the U.S south. The lattice allows varying and controllable degrees of light to enter the buildings, making it the first Smithsonian to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. The large front porch is a familiar architectural form prominent throughout the African Diaspora. As Adjaye told Vogue, “I’ve tried to make every decision here have some history.”

Museum Interior

As you might imagine, there is a lot of ground to cover in African American History and Culture. Michelle Gates Moresi, supervisory curator of museum collections at NMAAHC, shared these pillars of the museums’ vision with Culture Type:

Providing an opportunity to discover, explore and revel in African American history and culture and all its nuances and complexities, emphasizing the centrality of the African American experience to the American story, telling the African American story in an international context, and serving as a place of dialogue and engaging new audiences; collaboration with other museums and educational institutions; and reconciliation.

The museum is designed so that as visitors travel upward from the underground portion of the museum, they journey forward through temporal history while experiencing parallel explorations of many branches of African American culture. Sixty percent of the building is underground, with a path that leads through early historic periods including slavery and civil rights. The 40 percent of the structure that is above ground focuses on diverse cultural and contemporary offerings, contributions, and stories of African Americans. On the second floor, for example, guests can research their family genealogy with a staff genealogist. In the culture galleries on the fourth floor (the highest floor accessible to visitors) the corona opens to let in light and hope, exposing exquisite views of Washington’s memorials. Through its design and layout, the building itself becomes the skeleton of the body of rich and nuanced narrative that the museum shares with the public.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture offers “85,000 square feet of exhibition space, nearly 3000 objects, 12 exhibitions, 13 different interactives with 17 stations, and 183 videos housed on five floors.” Since the museum opened, it has been highly attended and the site advises you to be prepared for crowds and waits. The Museum uses a Timed Pass system to allow enjoyable visitation experiences and to keep the crowds flowing. Visit their calendar page for upcoming events.

Julia Travers


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