Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture

As I stood in line waiting to get into the history galleries at the National Museum of African American History and Culture earlier this week, it struck me that this was one of the few times I could remember being in a museum where I, as a white person, was in the minority. Though I was far from the only white person there, the majority of the other visitors were black. 

The day I visited, almost everyone went straight downstairs. NMAAHC is split into two different sections: up, thematic sections on African-American music, sports, education, and more; down, below ground, the History Galleries, three floors running in chronological order from the 1400s up to the present day. To get in, you have to wait in line to enter a vestibule, then take an elevator down to the beginning of the exhibition, where you enter a series of galleries exploring the very early history of European exploration and the start of the slave trade.

 Visitors exploring the first gallery in the Slavery and Freedom exhibition. 

Visitors exploring the first gallery in the Slavery and Freedom exhibition. 

As the chronology moves into the American Revolution and early United States, you leave the smaller spaces and enter into an expansive, three-story high atrium. There, the first thing you see is a statue of Thomas Jefferson underneath gold letters spelling out “All men are created equal…” on the wall above him and the names of his slaves etched into bricks behind him. This display, appropriately, is titled “The Paradox of Liberty.”

 Thomas Jefferson, with the names of each slave he owned on bricks behind him, in the "Paradox of Liberty" display. 

Thomas Jefferson, with the names of each slave he owned on bricks behind him, in the "Paradox of Liberty" display. 

Going through the larger space, you find exhibits on plantation life around a reconstructed slave cabin and information on abolitionists, and then you're back into smaller spaces to cover the Civil War and Reconstruction. On the next level up, the small rooms move through the era of segregation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. The second level also has a component out in the atrium, where you’ll find a railroad car and information on Pullman Porters, a lunch counter with digital interactives on nonviolent resistance and protesting, and the entrance to the Emmett Till memorial.

 Interactives at the lunch counter, and the Pullman car in the background. 

Interactives at the lunch counter, and the Pullman car in the background. 

Up a floor, the decades between the Civil Rights movement and the present day are covered, with everything from a reconstruction of Oprah’s set to videos from Black Lives Matter protests and President Obama’s inauguration. Immediately outside of the exit is a Contemplation Court, a space for quiet reflection with a fountain and inspirational words around the walls. From there, it’s upstairs to the thematic exhibits or back to the entrance atrium, cafe, or gift shop. 

I went pretty quickly through that third level and the thematic exhibitions. By the time I got to the Emmett Till memorial, I was already overwhelmed, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I took one look at his coffin, displayed with the picture of his mother weeping at his funeral right next to it, and had to turn around.

It's not that I haven't seen that picture of Mamie Till-Mobley before. I’ve seen Emmett’s broken, unrecognizable face as published in newspapers after his death, seen the picture of his smile before his fateful trip south still with a trace of chubby little-boy cheeks on his young man’s face. I’ve even seen images of the coffin before, from news stories about when it was discovered in poor condition in Chicago and acquired by the museum several years ago. But those images, I looked up on Google or came across in books. There’s a distance in that kind of encounter that separates you, keeps you at a distance, makes it less real.  

Seeing the actual, physical coffin there - it’s a different kind of experience entirely. It is physical, tangible, solid, real; and that presence brings the knowledge of what happened to Emmett into sharp, bitter clarity.

I've done a lot of thinking about visitors, how they engage, what they're seeing, feeling, thinking. I've also done a lot of thinking about how I can be the worst kind of museum visitor because I'm not actually engaging with what's on view, I'm analyzing how it's presented. I was guilty of that at NMAAHC: noticing the design and lighting of the displays; watching to see how long other visitors lingered at each object; picking out the Beverly Serrell-type Big Idea in each gallery; noting demographic and age and group composition. 

It was not exactly a pleasant experience, being jarred out of that dispassionate observational role into a state of emotional upset. But I think it was an important one. I’ve been to a lot of museums. Art museums, history museums, science museums, children’s museums, medical museums, botanical gardens, historic houses, whatever — museums are spaces in which I feel comfortable. I know how to behave, how to navigate, how to decode floor plans and gallery layouts and understand the information being presented.

In short, I know what it's like to visit a museum. 

Except I don't, at least not for everyone. I'm comfortable in museums because I've worked in them, yes, but I'm also comfortable in them because I'm white. I don't know what it's like to visit a museum as a black person, whether it's NMAAHC or any other. I’m not sure I can know, not really. 

Many museums are spaces coded towards an audience that is white, middle-class, and educated. If you fall into this group, as I do, it can be very, very easy to visit museums without thinking about this at all, unless you’ve been primed to notice the ways in which white privilege can define how museum spaces work. For example, as a white person I can expect to find that in most museums (with the exception of identity museums like NMAAHC) there will be people who look like me depicted on the walls, leading tours, and curating the displays. I will almost never be one of no or only a few other visitors with my color of skin. I will probably not be followed through the galleries, talked down to, or looked at askance. In art museums, where my experience is greatest, I can almost certainly guarantee the largest sections will be focused on European and (primarily white) American culture with only a few token examples of faces that don't share my skin color. 

I can also guarantee that many, many people will not notice any of this. This experience will seem “normal” and so it won't be questioned.

This doesn't just apply to museums, of course. It's endemic to our culture, and without purposefully taking in diverse viewpoints, it can be hard to recognize. I would hope that visiting a museum like NMAAHC would provide that viewpoint, and a starting place for to ask those questions, and to begin the work of recognizing and dismantling white privilege. (For many white people, I hope this will be the case. But I suspect there will be others for whom it might not.)

The reality is, as a white person, I could have left what I saw behind me. I could have dismissed my reaction to Emmett Till's coffin, or refused to unpack what I felt. I could have walked back out onto the National Mall out of those underground galleries into the sunlight, and never thought about any of it ever again. I could decide that all of this history does not matter to me and my life, and ignore it. That's white privilege, that I can choose to ignore it. And it happens all the time, white people making this choice. White people shout “All lives matter!” in response to “Black lives matter!” White people write school textbooks describing slaves as “workers” and “immigrants.” White people dismiss stories of bias and prejudice because we ourselves haven’t experienced such things. White people walk through exhibitions on lynching and think an appropriate response is to leave behind a noose. We white people, we can live in this bubble of our own making if we so choose, and it's far too easy to do so. We need to get away from easy, fellow white people. We need to pay attention to experiences that jolt us out of complacency and dispassionate observation.

If you're reading this and it makes you uncomfortable, good. You should be. Embrace it. Start going to places like NMAAHC. Let yourself be challenged. 

If you go, wear walking shoes and be prepared for a lot of standing, waiting in line, and being in small spaces. Plan ahead to get your tickets; same-day passes are available starting at 6:30 AM, but they go quick. Advance passes are currently sold out for several months. There are some benches, but not many. In the history galleries, there is only one bathroom right at the beginning, so don't chug a bottle of water right before you go in. After that, it’s a mile and a half through the galleries, and there’s no re-entry allowed.

Take time if you need it. Get out of your analytical mind and let yourself feel. Visit the Contemplation Court and watch the water falling, and think about what you’ve seen.

And when you leave, take it with you. 

 The Contemplation Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

The Contemplation Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.