A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story: The Exhibitions

The long-awaited opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture generated worldwide attention. We’ve gathered some of the most interesting, compelling and thought-provoking coverage to highlight the museum’s collections and the exhibitions that tell the African American story.


Why no major Martin Luther King artifacts will be at the new African American Museum

The Washington Post, Sept. 11, 2016

King surround by supporters

Martin Luther King Jr., center, begins walking out of camp near Selma on March 22, 1965, as his protest march starts its second lap. (Anonymous / AP)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s children called the museum with an intriguing invitation.

They had something they knew the National Museum of African American History and Culture wanted. So in January, curator Rex Ellis headed to Atlanta, slipped on a pair of white gloves, and carefully turned the pages of King’s traveling Bible. The public last saw it during President Obama’s second inauguration when it was borrowed from the family.

“It was heavier than I thought it would be,” remembers Ellis, the museum’s associate director of curatorial affairs. “Not only was it the weight of the object itself but the weight of what it was. You’re holding it like it’s a baby. I was uncomfortable holding it for long.” Read more from Geoff Edgars for the Washington Post.

I, Too, Sing America

The New York Times, Sept. 15, 2016

Stature of Jefferson in front of bricks inspcribed with names

Thomas Jefferson and his slaves: A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in front of a stack of bricks marked with the names of people he owned. (Photo via The New York Times)

Appropriately for a public museum at the heart of Washington’s cultural landscape, the museum’s creators did not want to build a space for a black audience alone, but for all Americans. In the spirit of Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” their message is a powerful declaration: The African-American story is an American story, as central to the country’s narrative as any other, and understanding black history and culture is essential to understanding American history and culture. View the photo essay and video from the New York Times.

Inside America’s New African-American Museum

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 15, 2016

Colorful painting of woman drinking tea

Amy Sherrald, “Grande Dame Queenie,” 2012. (Photo courtesy Amy Sherrald / Monique Melochie Gallery)

In what’s shaping up to be the marquee evnt of the fall art season, the Smithsonian Institution is making final preparations to open an eight-story, $540 million museum on the last five acres available on the Mall, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Read more from Kelly Crow for The Wall Street Journal (pdf)

On his tour of the African American museum, Obama probably saw a familiar face

The Washington Post, Sept. 15, 2016

Exhibition artifacts on display, including Hope poster

An exhibition on the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

…As the first black president, Obama is amply represented through the museum’s exhibits and galleries. There are buttons and signs from his campaign, and a program from an inaugural ball. There is also a black dress with red roses, made by African American designer Tracy Reese, that Michelle Obama wore during the 50th anniversary ceremony commemorating the March on Washington. Read more from Krissah Thompson for The Washington Post.

Even the Café Is Historical at the New Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture

Time, Sept.15, 2016

Long shot of crowded cafe

Guests sample dishes like Son-of-a-Gun stew, pan-roasted oysters, smoked haddock, corn croquettes with a gribiche sauce, slow cooked collards and other traditional foods at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Sweet Home Cafe Sept. 14, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla /Getty Images)

If the kitchen is often the heart of the home, in the African American community it’s also the soul. Food is central to the black cultural experience, whether it’s dished out during times of celebration, mourning, comfort or joy—or shared between a family on a regular old Wednesday night. Read more from Maya Rhodan for Time.

11 Exhibits You Need to See at the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum

Washingtonian, Sept 15, 2016

Blue and yellow plane suspended from ceiling

Hanging from the ceiling, and polished to look brand-new, is a training airplane used by the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. The plane, which had been wrecked in a crash, was purchased in 2005 by a retired Air Force captain who repaired it, and later donated it to the Smithsonian. (Photo by Evy Mages)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is not a one-day museum. Unlike its peer institutions along the Mall, which whether by ubiquity or scope of the collection can be consumed in a single visit, this new museum packs in so much history—more than 600 years, in fact—it’ll take a few trips to take in the entire presentation. Read more from Benjamin Freed for Washigntonian.

Small Artifacts, Big Stories at the National Museum African American History & Culture

NBC4-Washington, Sept, 16, 2016

Objects suspended behind glass in display case

A shotgun shell, a stained glass rosette and 10 shards of glass that were collected at the scene of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing are on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo credit: Erica Jones)

…The museum contains about 85,000 square feet of exhibition space on five floors, and there are nearly 3,000 objects.

While larger items like a prison tower from Louisiana’s Angola prison or the Tuskegee Airmen’s Stearman Kaydet are hard to miss, some of the museum’s smaller artifacts can be overlooked.

Here are the stories behind some of the museum’s smallest artifacts. Read more from Erica Jones for NBC4-Washington.

Google Is Preparing a 3-D Interactive Exhibit for the African American History Museum

Washingtonian, Sept, 16, 2016

Interior of church with fact screen superimposed

A screenshot from the Google Expeditions tour of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

When the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opens September 24, it will feature an array of multimedia displays, photography, and film. But you’ll have to wait until spring 2017 for a 3-D exhibit developed by Google engineers. Google spokesperson Roya Soleimani says it will be worth the wait. Read more from Maxine Joselow for Washingtonian.

New African-American Museum In D.C. Remembers Imprisoned Leesburg Stockade Girls

NPR-Weekend Edition, Sept. 17, 2016

A photo in Washington’s new African-American history museum brings back a forgotten chapter of the civil rights era: the jailing in a Georgia stockade of young black girls who protested segregation. Listen to the story or read the transcript from NPR.

Documenting The History Of African-Americans In The California Gold Rush

NPR – All Things Considered, Sept. 17, 2016

The history of African-Americans and the California Gold Rush is a complicated one, and often overlooked. But it’s part of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Listen to the story or read the transcript from NPR.

The top 36 must-see items at the African American museum

The Washington Post, Sept. 19, 2016

Small copper square marked with number and date

Charleston “slave badge.” Slaveholders could earn money by hiring their slaves out as workers. A slave badge identified the slave by his or her profession and the date.

When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in 2003, it had no collection. Since then, museum leaders have acquired approximately 40,000 objects, of which some 3,500 will be on view. They document the tragedy and triumph of the African American experience, from the Colonial era of slavery to the election of the nation’s first African American president. Here are 36 of the most emotionally and historically resonant treasures in the collection that no visitor should miss. Read more from Phillip Kennicott and Peggy McGlone for The Washington Post.

A Mural on View in the African American History Museum Recalls the Rise of Resurrection City

Smithsonian.com, Sept. 21, 2016

Segment of Hunger Wall mural with slogans and drawings

Detail from Resurrection City mural, 1968. (National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Vincent deForest)

The words and images on what is known as “The Hunger Wall” are stark, but visceral. “Brothers and Sisters, Hunger is Real,” screams one panel in blood-red letters. “Chicano Power” and “Cuba Libre,” roars another. The voices are from some of the nearly 3,500 people who descended upon Washington D.C.’s National Mall in May, 1968 for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Read more from Allison Keyes for Smithsonian.com.

From a slave house to a prison cell: The history of Angola Plantation

The Washington Post, Sept. 21, 2016

Prospm cell seen through cell bars

A prison cell from inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary on exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Louisiana State Penitentiary is also known as Angola after the country the slaves of this former plantation originally came from. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The prison cell is 6 feet by 9 feet. Its old metal bars evoke a William Faulkner truism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The cell was once on a patch of land owned by the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In the 19th century, that same land was home to a slave plantation. Both the prison and the plantation share the nickname Angola, referring to the African country from which its slaves came. Read more from Krissah Thompson for The Washington Post.

Emmitt Till’s casket remains a haunting memorial to America’s violent racism

The Washington Post, Sept. 21, 2016

Mrs Mobley grieving over the coffin of her son

Mamie Till Mobley at the funeral for her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. Credit The Chicago-Sun Times/Associated Press

Historian Lonnie G. Bunch III was a teenager when he heard the story of Emmett Till, the Chicago 14-year-old who was beaten and killed in 1955 for whistling at a white woman during a visit to Mississippi.

“Like Emmett, I grew up in the North and had Southern relatives. For males of my age, [his] was a cautionary tale,” Bunch said. “I didn’t know the name, but I knew about a Northern kid who went South, ran afoul of the etiquette of the white South and was murdered.” Read more from Krissah Thompson for The Washington Post.

As Nat Turner led a bloody slave rebellion, he carried this bible 

 The Washington Post, Sept. 21, 2016
Bible with torn and missing pages

This small bible is missing its cover and several pages at the beginning and end of the text. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Maurice A. Persona and Noah and Brooke Porter)

 The small, fragile Bible sat on the top shelf of a dining room closet wrapped in an old cotton dish towel until Wendy Creekmore-Porter pulled it out for historian Rex Ellis.

“We don’t bring it out much,” Barbara Jean Person, Creekmore-Porter’s mother, told him.

 “Then I remember her saying, ‘Because there’s so much blood on it,’ ” recalls Ellis, the associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ellis slowly removed the towel and looked for blood. He quickly realized the statement was figurative. Read more from Krissah Thompson for the Washington Post.

 Family Heirloom, National Treasure: Rare Photos Show Black Civil War Soldiers

 National Public Radio: All Things Considered, Sept. 21, 2016
Page of album with oval photo of African American Civil War soldier

A black-and-white photograph of John Walls. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Aneita Gates, on behalf of her son, Kameron Gates, and all the Descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt)

Each of the photos in Capt. William A. Prickitt’s album could fit in a locket: headshots of 17 black soldiers who served under the Union Army officer during the Civil War, most of their names handwritten on the mat surrounding the images.

At just 2 inches tall, the square, leather-bound album itself could be easily misplaced among the more than 35,000 artifacts it will join at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens this week in Washington, D.C.

Its size belies its historical importance: It’s a rare instance of original photographs of African-American soldiers whose identity is documented. Read more from Cheryl Corley for All Things Considered.

History Grabs the Headlines, But the Quiet Authority of the Art Gallery in the New Smithsonian Museum Speaks Volumes

Smithsonian.com, Sept. 28, 2016
Entrance to art gallery

The gallery’s uncluttered walls make way for splashy art that has space to breathe and have an impact. (Jason Flakes)

Entering the shiny new lobby of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, one might think it a brilliant showcase for contemporary art.Across the ceiling sprawls an abstract bronze, copper and brass sculpture by Chicago’s Richard Hunt. On one wall is a five-paneled work from D.C. color field artist Sam Gilliam. On another, a relief of recycled tires from Chakaia Booker, who wowed Washington last year with an installation at the splashy reopening of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Read more from Roger Catlin for Smithsonian.com.

How Did Smithsonian Curators Pack 200 Years of African-American Culture in One Exhibition?

Smithsonian.com, Sept. 30, 2016

Entrance to exhibition gallery

The Cultural Expressions exhibition celebrates the everyday. (Photo by Jason Flakes)

The curators of the Cultural Expressions exhibition collected stories and artifacts and brilliantly packed 200 years into one round room. Read more from Jackson Landers for Smithsonian.com.

Why Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress designer was fashion’s ‘best kept secret’

The New York Post, October 16, 2016

Two gowns on display

Two of the three gowns by Lowe that are currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History & Culture. (Photo: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

In 1953, when Ann Lowe received a commission to create a wedding gown for society swan Jacqueline Bouvier, she was thrilled. Lowe, an African-American designer who was a favorite of the society set, had been hired to dress the woman of the hour, the entire bridal party and Jackie’s mother. But 10 days before Jackie and Sen. John F. Kennedy were to say “I do,” a water pipe broke and flooded Lowe’s Madison Avenue studio, destroying 10 of the 15 frocks, including the bride’s elaborate dress, which had taken two months to make.

In between her tears, Lowe, then 55, ordered more ivory French taffeta and candy-pink silk faille, and corralled her seamstresses to work all day. Jackie’s dress, with its classic portrait neckline and bouffant skirt embellished with wax flowers, went on to become one of the most iconic wedding gowns in history, but, decades later, Lowe would die broke and unknown at age 82. Read more from Raquel Laneri for the New York Post.

Why doesn’t the African American Museum celebrate Clarence Thomas? 

The Washington Post, Oct. 19

Thomas laughing with unidentifiied Catholic cardinal

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

This month marks two historic occasions: the inauguration of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall and the 25th anniversary of the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as the second black Supreme Court justice. Ideally, the two historic moments should converge in a celebration of the journey of progress of African Americans up from slavery to their rightful place among the pantheon of American life and culture. But it’s obvious that won’t be the case. Read more from Armstrong Williams for the opinion pages of The Washington Post.

Posted: 21 October 2016
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni is primarily responsible for "other duties as assigned" in the Office of Communications and External Affairs. She has been with the Smithsonian since 2006 and plans to be interred in the Smithson crypt.