The National Museum of African American History and Culture:
By The New York Times
Produced by Alicia DeSantis and Josh Williams, Photographs by Lexey Swall, Written by Graham Bowley, Interviews by Tamara Best, Graphics by Anjali Singhvi, Video by Jonah M. Kessel
September 15, 2016
Powerful objects: The collection includes potent artifacts, including a Ku Klux Klan hood and stereotypical representations of black Americans.
The museum says the building’s three-tiered shape evokes a traditional Yoruban crown. The exterior corona is made of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels. The distinctive architecture alternatively symbolizes hands lifted in prayer, in what the museum says is an expression of faith, hope and resilience.
Unusually, the museum had to start from scratch without a collection. It ran an “Antiques Roadshow”-style project in 15 cities that encouraged people to give heirlooms from their closets and attics, and yielded some of the 40,000 objects the museum now holds. About 3,500 artifacts will be on display in the opening exhibitions, many of them treasures donated by ordinary people.
Here are a few of these donors, and a look at a new museum confronted with the task of capturing both the pain and the pride of America’s past.
From Slavery to Emancipation
The museum decided to tell its story in part chronologically rather than thematically. This decision is written into the architecture itself, as visitors descend 70 feet below ground to begin the historical journey centuries ago with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The museum confronts head-on America’s history of slavery and racial oppression. Yet, while memorializing suffering, the museum wants even the bleakest artifacts to have a positive message. As visitors face an auction block where slaves stood to be bought and sold, they can also imagine the strength slaves summoned to survive.
Iron ballast and wooden ship pulley The São José, a Portuguese slave ship, sank off the coast of South Africa in 1794, killing 212 of the more than 400 slaves on board. The ballast was used to counterbalance the weight of the ship’s human cargo. During the disaster, the pulley may have been used in rescue attempts.
Cat-o’-nine-tails This type of whip was often used aboard slave ships.