Last December, I finally took the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC with the specific purpose of visiting its museums. I was particularly looking forward to seeing the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) which opened in 2016. Here are some thoughts and observations that I’ve had during and since my visit.
There is something immensely powerful to have such an architecturally impressive building dedicated exclusively to a story that in my time in the United States almost 15 years ago felt largely absent from the public narrative. Its position on the National Mall, right across from the Washington Monument with open space all around that increases the building’s visiblity, gives the museum further prominence. I was really struck by how much this combination – the location, the architecture, the thematic focus – seemed to signal the importance of the African American perspective.
It goes without saying that simply opening a museum does not change anything about the on-going racism and discrimination experienced by black Americans today. And quite possibly there are issues too with how the story of African American history and culture is told within the museum.
Nevertheless, to me – and I write here purely as a white, foreign visitor with only limited prior knowledge – the sheer existence of the NMAAHC felt like an important acknowledgment in and of itself. Personally, I did feel the interpretation went far beyond a simplistic reduction of African American history and culture to slavery. The sheer fact that the exhibition begins with a look at African society beyond its relationship to Europe raises the story above a narrative of European exploitation and African pain, of master and slave. The exhibition for me gave a deep sense of black dignity and power while not ever shying away from showing the inhumane treatment black Americans have faced and are still facing, from lynchings to segregation to police violence.
I do not see how any white European or white American can walk through the NMAAHC without having their own identity and heritage narratives challenged. And that, too, is a powerful outcome of having an entire museum dedicated to a story that lies outside the dominant hegemony. Going through the NMAAHC forces you to compare what you see with what you may have been thinking about your people, your country and your history for your entire life. You cannot help but realize that here, you are the other, and an other who is (the descendent of) a perpetrator whose actions reverberate into your present.
That, too, was a humbling experience. Not the perpetrator part – as a German, sadly, I’ve had that experience several times before. I mean the experience of being ‘the other’. How sobering to feel so acutely that this wasn’t my space. From the history and culture on the wall to the truly noticeable increase in the number of black people within the museum: that I as a white person should be so aware of that just shows how much black history and experience, even black presence is usually absent from my life, both personally and professionally. That’s truly shocking to me.
One of the messages of the NMAAHC as I perceived it was that the history of black Americans in all its complexity is an intrinsic part of wider American history. Slaves built much of the United States. Black soldiers fought in the country’s wars. This message is now clearly part if not of the official discourse of the United States – I don’t know – but certainly of the narrative given in the (Smithsonian) museums, be it in the National Museum of American History or even the American Art Museum. I wasn’t too sure what to make of the other aspect of this message, that of course slavery was a contradiction to the claim in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ and that this contradiction is still an element and representation of the nation’s complicated and faulty endeavour to live up to the ideals of its founding fathers today. This is true, no doubt, and yet it felt too much like an excuse rather than the call for change that is needed.
All in all, my visit to the NMAAHC has once again convinced me that museums have a significant role to play in increasing awareness and acknowledgement of those groups within society whose stories and experiences are suppressed or muted. Every museum has that task, including those who are not exclusively dedicated to the topic.