The road was long to the opening of this educational site, but a wealth of remarkable expositions makes it worthwhile. With its combination of engaging exhibitions and interesting artefacts, the National Museum of African and American History and Culture will become the single most important tribute to slavery in the United States.

The site for this museum was earmarked all the way back in 2006, but it took another decade until the National Museum of African and American History and Culture was finally opened in Washington DC, the capital of the United States. Congressmen John R Lewis and Mickey Leland were pushing for such a museum all the way back in 1988, so the opening of the site is very much a cause for celebration.

A Yoruban culture influenced edifice

A nationwide competition was held to win the design rights for the museum, with six firms chosen as finalists. The joint submission by Freelon Group/Adjaye Associates/Davis Brody Bond won the competition, and they built an impressive structure featuring an inverted step pyramid in the higher floors with a bronze architectural scrim surrounding it – this was intended to reflect a Yoruban tribal crown. Set in lush grounds near the National Museum of American History, the long awaited museum had found its home.


Focus on slavery

As well as covering a range of topics from civil rights to popular culture, slavery is one of the key areas addressed by the museum. Slavery related points of interest include a letter written by one of the leaders of the slave revolt which marked the 1791 Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture. There are also examples of clothing worn by African-American slaves.

The first African slaves were brought to the US by Dutch traders aboard a captured Spanish ship in 1619, and slavery continued up until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln changed the federal status of the three million or so slaves in the southern states which had not yet freed them. In total, it is estimated 12.5 million Africans were shipped to America, or the New World as it was once known, but only 10.7 million of them survived the journey known as the ‘Middle Passage’.

Important figures in the US history of slavery include rebel leader Nat Turner, who was famous for the uprising which he started in Virginia, and Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist who became a spy and armed scout for the US Army.

There is currently an exhibition entitled ‘Slavery and Freedom’, which looks at the subject starting from its origins in Africa and Europe, right through to the Civil War and Reconstruction. According to the museum: “Through powerful objects and first person accounts, visitors encounter both free and enslaved African Americans’ contributions to the making of America and explore the economic and political legacies of the making of modern slavery. The exhibition emphasises that American slavery and American freedom is a shared history and that the actions of ordinary men and women, demanding freedom, transformed our nation.”

Less than a year since opening, the National Museum of African and American History and Culture is still seeing long queues of people who are keen to further their understanding of slavery in the United States.