An ordinary sales slip consigning a young woman to slavery is among the chilling items that will be displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The $500 million branch of the Smithsonian in Washington breaks ground tomorrow for an opening in the autumn of 2015 that will add an ambiguous exclamation to the imposing line of culture palaces along the Mall.
A rendering of the museum’s design reveals it to be too polite to capture the tragic and redemptive African-American experience. Yet I can feel an exuberant Africanness struggling to escape the civic blandness imposed by fundraising, watchdog groups and design review that are part of building on America’s most sacred ground.
Athletically sloping columns hoist tiers of bronze metalwork above the National Mall. David Adjaye, the project’s chief designer, says those sprouting bronze metal bands derive from Yoruba motifs. The building captures a sensibility found in textiles and art throughout West Africa, where the chief slave-trading ports were.
London-based Adjaye is working with the insightful architect Philip Freelon, of Durham, North Carolina. (The team includes architecture firms Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroup.)
As you approach the museum, the apparently solid bronze surface is revealed as a delicate screen made from a high-tech composite of concrete and bronze that softens the building’s bulk. Its patterns energetically update the ornamental ironwork screens that veiled porches in 19th-century New Orleans, where many of the artisans were African-American.
On the Porch
The museum’s Mall-facing south side welcomes visitors with a broad veranda -- another image drawn from collective memory. Even the poorest could take refuge from the heat of summer on a porch where family life was carried on.
Fronted by a cooling pond, the veranda will beckon visitors trudging the walkways from the nearby Washington Monument. The location is extraordinary -- next to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where the mall opens to the broad green cross-axis that leads from the White House and flows around the monument to the picturesque tidal basin.
The ground floor is given over to a glass-wrapped public room, a convivial gathering and event space with a ceiling from which hangs a forest of wood boards; these conceal lighting and projection screens. The convex ceiling rises highest at the edges to call attention to views of the White House and the Lincoln Memorial. No other Washington museum takes in this extraordinary setting.
In the Basement
In basement galleries, museum director Lonnie Bunch links black experience to the full sweep of American events, from slavery to the election of Barack Obama. The museum will display a French Croix de Guerre earned by a World War I “Harlem Hellfighter,” who was permitted to fight for the U.S. only under the French.
You’ll walk through a comfortable rail car reserved for whites, swing open a pair of doors and find bare benches where blacks were segregated.
“I am not creating a building by, and about, and for African Americans,” said Bunch. “We’re helping people understand American ideas of freedom and resiliency.”
The history galleries culminate in a contemplative memorial room, where water spills down from a ground-level oculus above.
Two upper-level exhibition floors focus on black contributions in music, sports and fine arts. You’ll find Chuck Berry’s guitar and Cadillac.
Out the Window
Adjaye has cut angled windows into the mesh exterior. One aims at the domed pavilion that commemorates the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. Another frames the Lincoln Memorial, where the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. delivered his famous “I Had a Dream” speech.
Visitors can truly comprehend the power of King’s oratory by imagining the vast space in front of Lincoln’s statue filled with thousands of listeners.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)