Visiting the Smithsonian Museum of African American history
In planning for 26 years prior to its 2016 opening, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture is a tribute to not letting a dream die. On a visit to Washington, D.C., it remains a museum that is a must-see. But plan ahead to get tickets, and read up about the museum so you can make the most of your visit to its all-encompassing exhibits.
I had the chance to visit the museum – part of the Smithsonian group — just a few weeks before the museum’s first anniversary in 2017. Despite doing my homework before my visit, I mistakenly imagined I could enjoy it in a few hours and move on to something else in the afternoon. Oh, so wrong. Unless your attention span is that of a gnat, you will really want most of an entire day there to soak in the exhibits, admire the architecture, and give yourself time for a few rest breaks as well as a snack or meal in the stupendous Sweet Home Café restaurant. Plus, honestly, there are exhibits that will drain a little emotion from you – leaving you needing a breather from time to time during your visit to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Since this museum has received widespread coverage since its opening on Sept. 24, 2016, I am not going to try to tell you all about the exhibits and its history – except that it took decades to realize the dream (Feasibility studies actually began in 1990!). Rather, after nearly 2.5 million visitors have passed through the doors in the first year – with the press for tickets not slowing – I want to give you a few tips on how to make the most of your visit there.
Nuts and bolts of visiting the museum
Let’s start with logistics – getting in, finding snacks and food, staying hydrating, taking rests, being comfortable:
- It is preferable to book a time-stamped ticket in advance. Those are for morning entries, and you need to plan weeks in advance. For example, tickets for January 2018 will be released in early October 2017. Even with these, you may have to wait in line outside based on building capacity. Do arrive in advance – up to an hour – and do bring water and appropriate sun or weather protection since you will wait in the elements.
- There are other ways to get in without advance booking – if you are a gambler. For example, some tickets are released day-of at 6:30 a.m. until they run out. There is also walk-up available for entry starting at 1 p.m., but you will never see the entire museum in four hours. Still, it’s something. We were told by a spokesman that most everybody does get in with these afternoon passes.
Finding snacks and staying hydrated
- You can bring in water with you, and it is advised in my opinion so you don’t have to go hunting for a fountain. But only water is allowed.
- The Sweet Home Café is stunning in its array of offerings of traditional, regional African-American cuisine. Do take the time to have a snack or meal there, but be aware that it is not inexpensive food court fare. However, know that the line between about 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. is verrry verrrry verrrry long. My suggestion is to eat a late hearty breakfast before arrival, and then eat a late lunch/early dinner after 3 p.m. I thoroughly enjoyed my Shrimp and Grits at 4 p.m.!
Taking rest breaks
- Do not miss the “Contemplative Court,” where you can sit, rest and contemplate the museum, the history and admire the water-filled memorial. It is in fact missed by some eager to get into the history galleries on the lower concourse. Look to the right of the History Galleries entrance and you will see a wall. Take a closer look and you will see a walkway behind the wall. Go up the ramps, and be prepared to be in awe. If you want a personal experience, go first thing in the morning and it will be empty or nearly so.
- Go all the way to the top floor where the Culture Galleries are. If you are facing the doors that go into the gallery, go right instead and around the corner. There, you have spectacular panoramic views of the mall. Plus, there are a number of benches and a lot of quiet for another peaceful contemplative rest. There are also cut-outs in the bronze-colored lattice exterior targeted to allow views of key monuments!
- First and foremost, wear comfortable walking shoes! The lower-level history galleries alone are about a mile, so you will likely walk several miles!
- There are lockers to store your belongings so you aren’t weighed down. They are behind the restroom area on the ground floor on the opposite side from the escalators.
- And, of course, there will be a security screening at the entrance so limit what you do schlepp with you and take note of prohibited items.
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Where to start at the Museum of African American history
At 400,000 square feet and five floors (although the lower level is also divided into three other levels), the museum has plenty to offer. The trick is knowing where to start. We heard one recommendation that you go down to the bottom level then work your way up to the top. But that could be exhausting, and since so many people do this, you end up in a conga line of visitors in the lower level history exhibits. Everybody – at least on my visit – was incredibly cordial and worked with others wanting to see exhibits, but nevertheless it is quite crowded. Know too it is not your everyday humdrum museum, but is filled with artifacts, interactive exhibits, audio recordings, video clips, and more.
Remember, however, it is not just what is exhibited that is special at the African-American museum. In fact, the building and its architecture is part of the treat. You can read about that too in advance. The bronze-colored latticework offers homage to the intricate ironwork created and crafted by enslaved African Americans. So take the time to enjoy that also.
So, where to start? Start with what interests you, as one desk volunteer told me. The history concourses on the lower level are amazing, albeit very information-dense – I spent two hours there, and if you really read it all, you’d likely spend all day – but the upper-level Culture Gallery was for me a real treat. You experience music, dance, cultural explorations, clothing, education, you name it. It’s bright, open and makes people smile. The centerpiece is Chuck Berry’s cherry red convertible. Don’t even think about touching it or getting near it since it has its own guard.
Another upper-level treat is on the third level in the Community Gallery. There you can fully experience the world of sports and military.
If you have children or are interested in doing some research, the second level Explore More! Interactive Gallery will be for you. There is also a “Rosa Parks Virtual Reality” experience but that only runs between about 2 and 3 p.m. And the kids (OK, adults too) also really enjoyed some virtual cultural dance lessons on this floor!
What not to miss at the African American museum
I asked around with volunteers, staff and employees for a few tips about what people sometimes miss, perhaps due to a less obvious location. Here is what I learned about what not to miss from them and my own experience.
- Contemplative Court – Already mentioned above, this is a water- and light-filled two-story area with quotes on the walls. Water cascades down from a circular window above in a circle into a pool below. The movement, lights and sounds are relaxing and spark reflection.
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The music and power of water highlighted wonderfully at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Let Martin Luther King Jr's words wash over you and into you when you visit. Moving!!! @nmaahc #fountains #culture #museums
- Emmett Till Memorial – Emmett Till, 14, posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement after he was lynched, beaten and killed for allegedly “offending” a white woman in a store. His mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so the world could see what happened. He was exhumed in 2005 for further investigation and reburied in a different casket. When his original glass-top casket was discovered, the Smithsonian’s planned National Museum of African-American History & Culture acquired it. This casket and memorial with his story portrayed and moving audio and video recordings is intended to make you stop and think. It does. You will feel as if you are at his funeral. The memorial is on the second level of the history galleries in the back left corner behind the Angola Prison Guard Tower and beside the theater.
- Interactive Lunch Counter – Made to feel as if you are at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., this is not an exhibit you can miss since it sits in the center of the second lower history level. However, take some time to watch the videos that flash up on the large screen behind it. You will feel transported in time back to 1960 when four African-American students sat down and politely asked for service, which was refused. The videos go on to show how that action was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
- Upper floors – Also as described earlier, do not go so wrapped up in the lower history floors and miss the upper floors with culture and sports.
- Temporary exhibits – The entrance to these is opposite the entrance to the lower history galleries. During my visit, there was a photography exhibit.
Another must-see destination in Washington D.C. is Arlington. Read more here 9 tips to guide your visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
No matter how hard you try, you really will need a second visit to fully embrace this museum with its amazing, memorable and moving collections and exhibitions. So rest easy, see what you can without killing yourself, and enjoy the experience. Oh, and Happy Birthday to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.
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