A Long-Awaited National Treasure

The National Museum of African American History & Culture stands as a beacon to the resilience of a people and the power of design to tell their unforgettable story.

01/03/2017 By Robert Nieminen

There is no more appropriate site in this great nation to erect a permanent monument to the struggle of the African American people than the National Mall. It is there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic speech during the 1963 March on Washington in which he urged America to “make real the promises of democracy.” It is there that one of those promises was fulfilled this past September—where our first African American President, Barack Obama, stood before a distinguished crowd to dedicate our newest national treasure. And it is there on the Mall that a people’s journey from slavery to freedom will now be memorialized for generations to come in the halls of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC).

This is a story too weighty and too diverse to tell in these few pages. But as it always does, design helps illustrate in powerful and colorful ways what words sometimes fail to do. This is the story of a building 13 years in the making, and here’s how it began...

In 2003, President George W. Bush officially signed H. R. 3491, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture Act, a bill which authorized the creation of a Smithsonian Institution museum dedicated to the legacy of African Americans in America. As he noted during the dedication ceremony, President Bush said it’s fair to say that during his term, he and Congress didn’t always see eye-to-eye, “but this is one issue where we strongly agreed.”

The solidarity and commitment to this project carried all the way through to the design team and client as well, according to SmithGroupJJR senior vice president Hal Davis, FAIA, who led the firm’s contributions to the project during the eight-year design and construction process. Created as a result of a highly successful collaboration between the four-firm design team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR, the NMAAHC has been called one of the largest and most complex building projects in the country. Leveraging its decades of experience in museum design, including for the Smithsonian, SmithGroupJJR served as associated design/construction architect for the $540 million museum.

What we can see of this building—the towering glass, the artistry of the metalwork—is surely a sight to behold. But beyond the majesty of the building, what makes this occasion so special is the larger story it contains.

—President Barack Obama, speaking at the dedication ceremony of the National Museum of African American History & Culture

The striking design of the 400,000-square-foot building features two distinct design elements: the “Corona,” the signature exterior feature that consists of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels weighing a total of 230 tons; and the “Porch,” which serves as the location for the main museum entrance on Madison Drive. These elements help form an architectural narrative to the greater stories told within.

“The exterior panels ... are an inspiration that Lonnie Bunch, the founding director [of NMAAHC], suggested which was, as far as he was concerned, an inspiration coming from the wrought iron that was designed and made by slaves in New Orleans and Charleston and other port towns during the period of time that those were built,” Davis recalled. “And he said to David [Adjaye] and to the team, ‘Why don’t you take samples of wrought iron work that were done by slaves and give us a modern interpretation of that?’”

The result is nothing short of inspiring.

Today, the museum’s four underground levels are home to some of its most significant attractions and spaces, which include more than 36,000 artifacts. An expansive History Gallery spans three of the concourse levels, and celebrated spaces like the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater and Contemplative Court also reside below grade on another concourse level. The museum’s five levels above ground feature a Central Hall, Orientation Theater, store, education space, community and culture galleries, and staff offices.

Given the political climate of the nation leading up to the opening of the NMAAHC, Davis said it could not have come at a better time—that the message the Museum is conveying is exactly what we need at this moment in history.

“I think it’s all of our hope that people visiting the museum will find this as a means of healing and hopefully becoming one people, because it seems like things seem to be moving in the wrong direction. I hope the museum will be a catalyst to help do that.”  

Photography by Alan Karchmer/Smithsonian