Monday , January 25 2021
The NMAAHC at the National Mall. Credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC
The NMAAHC at the National Mall. Credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Ever since its dedication on the National Mall in September 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has been one of the most popular Smithsonian institutions. So many people include this museum in their Washington, D.C., itinerary that you need a timed entry pass to gain admission. Tourists can brave either the periodic timed pass release four months in advance, or try the 6:30 a.m. same-day pass release online. I recommend that you request an early entry time, like 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., to get ahead of the crowds and see as much as you can before the museum closes at 5:30 p.m.

Typically, I don’t recommend museum food, but the Sweet Home Café is really at another level in taste, quality, and ambience. It features classic dishes at four very distinct stations representing the Southern, Creole, Northern, and Western regions. Café staff are among the friendliest and personable I’ve met at a museum. Stop at the café right before you embark with your group into the galleries. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time backtracking from the exhibits to the café and then finding your exhibit.

The NMAAHC features seven floors of galleries, starting with “Slavery and Freedom: 1400-1877” under the street level and moving all the way up to the “Culture Galleries” four floors above street level. My only criticism is that the Slavery concourse is perhaps the most difficult to maneuver at the beginning. It’s a little dark and winding, which interferes with foot traffic and making it hard to read the detailed information panels. I interpret the tight design as intentional because it mimics somewhat the claustrophobic conditions of a ship.

Photo of Venus and Serena Williams Statues
Williams Sisters (Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

It’s easier to move about when you make it through to the Revolutionary War and into the Paradox of Liberty section, where statues of Founding Fathers and notable African American figures stand. Linger here and spend at least a half an hour with the tour guides, who will tell you fascinating anecdotes.

Venture through the other two underground concourses for the Emancipation artifacts, modern civil rights, and 1968 and beyond. It is amazing to see an actual Tuskegee airplane hanging above you. Take in a short documentary, and explore the wealth of information at the Interactive Lunch Counter.

Other gallery areas focus on special topics in African American history, such as education, wartime achievements, and important contributions in the advancement of science. As you might expect, Michelle Obama’s dress and other materials from Barack Obama’s campaign and presidency are on display.

Photo of Michelle and Barack Obama
NMAAHC grand opening (Leah L. Jones/NMAAHC)

The NMAAHC galleries also contain a diverse array of exhibits on art, music, sports, and other cultural topics. The sports section features large statues of tennis’s Williams sisters, jerseys of famous athletes, a glove used by boxing champion Muhammad Ali, and more. You’ll also enjoy the music exhibits, which showcase items like outfits of greats like the Jackson Five, James Brown, and George Clinton. Music enthusiasts can experiment with sounds in the DJ area, play famous disco tunes off a touchscreen in another room, and show off their dance moves at the Step Show.

As you’ll realize when you get there, the NMAAHC is an incredibly expansive complex. The museum has also hosted special events, including a Black Panther screening and discussions with individuals such as basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Obama photographer Pete Souza, and producer Quincy Jones. Many events are livestreamed on the NMAAHC website if you can’t obtain tickets online. Don’t delay figuring out your travel plans to the NMAAHC. Your family and friends will thank you for organizing this worthwhile and enriching experience for them!

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Virginia on a full scholarship. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Simon Callow, Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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