The ‘Thorny Path’ to National Museum of African American History and Culture is a Good Sign
Perhaps the most profound feature of the forthcoming National Museum of African-American History and Culture, scheduled to be complete by 2015, is its geographic location on the National Mall. Its insertion within this monumental landscape presents the notion that Black history is not “ancillary,” as the museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch III, notes, but in fact, is essentially American.
The museum has the opportunity to symbolize the notion that neo-classical architecture represents but a small bit of the spectrum of American spatial practices, and moreover, that Black spatial practice is part of that spectrum. But, let’s be honest. The relationship between Black cultural history and physical planning and design is weak. Accordingly, it will be intriguing to see how the museum continues to take shape and the dialogue it spurs.
Personally, I am most excited to see depictions of Black life and, if the museum is successful, experience the narrative of the everyday. While I would indeed be interested in seeing the preserved countertops of sit-ins in real life and other artifacts of national significance, I don’t want to just walk amongst glass containers with objects next to their description. I can pull up 16,400,000 websites, images, videos, and news related to “African American Culture History” in 0.34 seconds via Google – for free and from the comfort of my home. So, for traveling to Washington, D.C. and visiting this museum, it’s reasonable to ask for nothing less than wanting to occupy the spatial vernacular of Black culture and history. In this way, urban planning and design are critical to the showcasing of history and culture, as they shape the physical space of the experience. No pressure!
In African-American architectural history, there is a tendency to want to reach far back into history, precisely because the relationship between African-American studies and physical planning and design is so weak. The architectural team of Adjiaye Freelon Bond with SmithGroup were selected to design the museum building, and their proposal is based on Yoruba sculpture.
The use of a West African precedent commemorates the strong connectedness of the African diaspora, spread across continents, and the model looks as though it could be playing off of the shape of a crown. But, perhaps referencing African architecture to denote African American architecture was the easy way out. Are there no Black precedents of design to draw from over the course of the last 500 years of African-American history?
I will be looking to see how the design orients the interior of the museum to the landscape. The relationship between the inside of a building and the outside is one of the most distinct characteristics of Black spatial practice and most telling for what contemporary Black space-making could be. Without being in the space and without many of the details of the design ironed out at this point, it is difficult to know how this will play out in the museum.
The small forest of wood columns hanging from the ceiling of one of the lobbies could be interpreted as a small ode to this concept but largely, the envelope of the building looks like it poses a hard boundary between interior and exterior. The brown mesh of the building’s envelope may end up carving out some bold vistas and pockets of light, but stronger, culturally informed landscape design should activate the dynamic relationship of Black culture with landscape in order to create a strong museum experience that successfully channels Black American vernacular.
The NYTimes recent article about the museum, titled “The Thorny Path to a National Black Museum,” depicts the process of developing this museum as an introspective one, as Black Americans contemplate their narrative and simultaneously constructing its showcase. Everyone should see Black history as a perspective on themselves – Black or otherwise. Accordingly, there is a lot to say, and attempting to say it all in the dimensions of space, time, and national monumentality is no small task. In an awkward way, the strongest orientation from the museum seems to be towards the Washington Monument, a monument dedicated to the founding father who owned hundreds of slaves.
This, perhaps, is the strongest testament to just how complicated Black culture and history as American history can be. If this museum is being done right, the path should indeed be thorny.