It seems fitting that I write about my recent visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) a few days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's birthday and during the final week of Barack Obama's presidency (😞). Below is information on the museum, how to get passes, a recap from my visit and some other helpful tips:
About the Museum
The museum — which was authorized in 2003 after decades of efforts — finally opened to the public in September 2016. Inside the beautiful building designed by Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye, the museum traces the African American experience dating back to the 15th century and also looks at the role African Americans have played in American history and culture, including but not limited to sports, music, art, politics, fashion, television and film. NMAAHC has almost 37,000 objects in its collection that help bring to life the stories found throughout the building.
How to Get a Pass
Since it is a Smithsonian museum, NMAAHC is free but you need a timed entry pass to get in, which you can get through their ticketing system, Etix, in the following ways:
- Same-day passes are available online starting at 6:30 a.m.
- Walk-up passes are available after 1 p.m. on weekdays
- Advance passes can be obtained online (though FYI it tends to book up months in advance)
There are also group reservations available online. More details can be found here.
Recap of My Visit
I should first start off by describing the structure of the museum: generally speaking, the floors below look at the history and the floors above at the culture and community. When you go in, a museum staff member gives you a map of the building with the recommendation to start with the galleries below. These three levels take you through the entire history of African Americans in the U.S., starting at the bottom with slavery in Africa and Europe. By the time you get to the top of these levels, you've gone through the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Civil War, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the era of segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, Emmett Till's murder, the Black Panther Party and so on until you get to our present day of Barack Obama's presidency and the Black Lives Matter movement.
If you only have a few hours to visit the museum, go straight to the history galleries. I don't think there are sufficient words to sum up these three levels, but my best attempts would be infuriating, emotional, powerful, empowering, enlightening, draining and heartbreaking. It's way more detailed than any history book in any U.S. classroom. It goes through the African American experience like nothing else I've ever seen. And it leaves you wrung out.
By the time we got through those three floors, my family and I needed a break, for multiple reasons. It also takes you several hours to absorb it all, which is another reason to start below. By the time you reach the top, you're right outside the museum cafe, which is exactly where you need to go next.
So, let's talk about this cafe – the Sweet Home Cafe. In recent years, the dining options in museums have really improved, and it's entirely possible to have a great meal at a museum restaurant. The Sweet Home Cafe doesn't just give you a great meal, it gives you a meal much better than great – it gives you a damn good, feels like you're eating in your grandmother's kitchen, it's so good, kind of meal. My family and I ate some of the best shrimp and grits, cornbread, gumbo and braised short ribs I've ever had, and if I lived in Washington D.C., I would be going there regularly and happily. It's not cheap, but the quality is more than worth it.
The cafe is set up in sections where each section features food linked to the African American experience. There's the Agricultural South station, the Creole Coast station, the North States station and the Western Range station. And it caters to both vegetarians and carnivores, so make sure you come hungry and ready to eat a bit of history while you're there.
After lunch, my family and I went through the above galleries, starting at the top on the fourth floor. I LOVED this gallery (in full disclosure, it's sponsored by my employer). It looked at the "Cultural Expressions" of African Americans — art, music, dance, film, television, theater, fashion and so much more. After what I can only describe as the heaviness of the history galleries, the Cultural Expressions floor feels light and fun while also being very educational and engaging.
On the third floor below, you walk through an amazing collection of Africans Americans and their contributions in sports as well as the African American military experience. There's also an interesting interactive display that speaks to the migration patterns of Africans Americans over the years. And then, speaking of interactive, the second floor is mainly dedicated to exploring and learning in a more interactive way. For example, you can watch a virtual video and learn about the history of stepping and how to do a few step moves. It's like the dance game, Just Dance, except for step.
In summary, NMAAHC is easily one of the most incredible museums I've ever visited, and I strongly believe EVERYONE should visit. No matter who you are, you will walk away having learning something vital and integral to the America of today.
Other Helpful Tips
- As with many other museums: wear comfortable shoes and dress comfortably in layers. You will be there for hours and it can get crowded and warm in some areas, so prepare accordingly.
- If you can get an early timed pass, then go for that. The earlier, the better.
- If you can, it's worth visiting NMAAHC more than once because it's just sooo much. I spent almost five hours there and felt like it wasn't nearly enough time, so I know I'll have to plan my return soon.
- Talk to the people you encounter! One of the most memorable moments we had while at the museum was when we sat next to two elderly women – one who lived in D.C. and the other who was visiting her friend. These women told us about their experiences protesting in Selma and Greensboro. It was incredible to hear them speak and know that, for them, this museum isn't just full of events and situations they read about but also actually lived. One of the women pointed at an image on the wall and said, "I went to school with him." So, yes, talk to others, because that's also part of the experience. And it can potentially make your visit much more powerful.
For more information, head to the NMAAHC website. And then go visit!