To say that the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture takes you on a journey is a masterpiece of understatement. It is one that is far overdue for all of us and best traveled alone. Although this museum encourages a national conversation, the contemplative nature of its architecture, art, exhibitions, and the incredible quotations pushing out from its stone walls makes you think about your own responsibility to the future, being on the right side of history. Stepping into this majestic space for the first time, filled with people in the soaring atrium, I did not feel dwarfed or intimidated or awkward. The vibrations of the room were like the activity in the main hall of Grand Central Station, with travelers to destinations unknown.
The winding staircase down to where the exhibition space begins is a visual extravaganza of sweeping arcs, steep angles, and ironwork patterns overhead with as much significance as the historical exhibitions even deeper below. On an enormous elevator, above the decibel of conversations within the crowd, a woman near me said, "Oh, my God. This is like a time machine." Everyone fell silent, as we looked to our right and left out the glass sides of the elevator time machine to watch the dates tick backwards on the cement walls as we descended. We came to a halt at the year 1400 and exited into an undeniable history lesson. Suffice it to say, the rest of this journey was filled with reverence.
At times, I admit I was overcome with emotion. I ascended the museum's ramp system from one exhibition to another, moving through history that was not sanitized. Images and text outlined in red came with a warning about its suitability for children. Make no mistake though, this museum is not merely a retrospective of an abhorrent past, but it excitingly celebrates brilliance in art, literature, music, science, entertainment, sports, and politics. The best part is how it shines a light on people doing extraordinary things and changing the course of history.
The shear volume of items in the collection, video installations, and narrative that leads you through will take years of return visits to consume it all. The most poignant moment came when I was at the top of the ramp and I looked behind me. I could see images being cast simultaneously on the walls from illustrations of slavery, to the civil rights movement, to President Barack Obama being sworn into office. Off to the left, high upon a wall, was a quote from early civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells, "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them."