Museum Time


Review of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C., and the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.

The best way to enter the National Museum of African American History and Culture is through the Constitution Avenue doors, where the fountain is. It is a large fountain; round, carved out of black stone, closely covered with a low roof. It looks as dark as the slave trade; even in full sunlight the waters flow into a black hole. Take the elevator down, and the Museum helps you begin to imagine the world into which enslaved Africans were thrown.  

The exhibit begins three stories under the earth. Past the introductory room and through a doorway on the right, you step into an evocation of the appalling darkness of the middle passage, and begin a winding journey up through three floors of exhibits detailing the story of black America, a story that begins with “the largest forced migration of people in world history.” A forced migration of special horror because American slavery was tightly bound up with race.

The gallery on the American Revolution, while not as dramatic as the slave manacles or the intact plantation cabin, is a sort of microcosm of the history galleries, dealing as it does with the options – and, mostly, with the lack of options – that black Americans faced. Some free black men volunteered, some slaves served in place of gun-shy owners, and some went to war as personal servants. The British and American governments were alike in that each side promised freedom to slaves who enlisted, promises that each government sometimes kept and sometimes broke.  

Unfortunately, overall and despite the riches on offer, the 19th and 20th century history galleries are the museum’s least captivating because the narrative lacks context. There are compelling displays on individual incidents and abolitionists, but no sections about the ideal of human equality that emerged from the Reformation and Enlightenment. Abolitionists simply appear after the Middle Passage and before the Civil War, as naturally as summer follows spring. By describing American slavery and American racism as unique while presenting abolition and racial equality as natural, the NMAAHC gets history backwards. And it cheats us of experiencing the great battle of ideas in which a handful of idealists overturned ancient human ideas about the racial other, and about the right of one human being to own another. 

The history of the black experience in America is told as a story of enormous pain, gross injustice, and ultimate triumph, with the darkest parts of our national past in a series of underground galleries where visitors walk upwards through slavery and into our bitter national record of hard-won steps towards equality brutally beaten back.

Unsurprisingly in a nation still struggling with race, some aspects of the past are too hot to handle. The brutal reality of sharecropping is shown in all its horror. Segregated lunch counters are recreated dramatically. The murder of Emmett Till moves visitors to tears; it is located in a special room created as an Emmett Till Memorial. All of which makes it a pity that the curators felt compelled to portray a Nation of Islam without racial supremacism and a Black Panther Party that does not commit violence.  

By the time you emerge into the architecturally banal concourse you will probably want to visit the café and the restrooms. (Restrooms are not provided in the extensive first three floors of galleries, a flaw that may just possibly be a design element intended to point out yet another type of privileged access.) But either before or after you stop in the café, make sure to take the not-well-marked ramp just to the right of the exit from the lower floors. It leads to the only architecturally exciting space inside the building: the bottom of that dark fountain.

In this well of light, water rolls down like justice and voices still, but the walls speak.  

I ask no monument proud and high,

To arrest the gaze of the passersby,

All that my yearning spirit craves,

Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

        Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1858 

It is the above-ground galleries with their thematic foci, that wow the crowds. Topic alcoves bring aspects of Black America sharp focus; the one on Angola Prison is particularly dramatic. Others focus tightly on topics as diverse as a successful Philadelphia millinery shop, Buffalo soldiers, and the career of Paul Robeson, offering close-ups of the diversity of black life. The painful present, the poverty, inequality and violence that white America continues to deal out to black Americans is not absent in these three light-filled galleries, but the mood is celebratory, even triumphalist.

Unsurprisingly, the NMAAHC suffers from the lack of comparative perspective that afflicts all identity museums. At times, this lack misleads curators into making sweeping claims like the assertion in the introductory room that before 1400 “slavery was a temporary status,” a statement that would have confounded slaves not only in ancient Rome, but in the early modern Mediterranean. Misimpressions are also conveyed by absence, as in a map of Africa drawn with arrows pointing west; the arrows vary in width according to the numbers of slaves taken from each area. The absence of arrows showing the flow of enslaved Africans to the Ottoman world conveys the impression that the African slave trade was an exclusively American project. 

Taken as a whole, however, the NMAAHC shows that it is possible to do an identity museum well, to build a museum on a foundation of rigorous scholarship that can inform, excite, and even inspire. 

By contrast, the exhibits in the sandstone butte at the eastern end of the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian, are an imagined history so out of touch with the evidence that I can almost believe that the curators intend them ironically.  

African-American and Amerindian history are starkly different. Five hundred years ago Amerindian peoples were like peoples the world over, migrating, changing, conquering, sometimes creating great empires. Within the boundaries of what is now the United States, Indians were more powerful than the first Europeans they encountered, eliminating the first colony planted in Virginia and the first Spanish colony at Santa Fe. The English approached chieftains on the eastern seaboard much as they approached rulers in Africa and Asia, negotiating with them for the right to build trading, fishing or farming colonies.

In the beginning, neither party understood the scale of advantage that Old World technologies - including very ancient ones like the alphabet and the wheeled vehicle - gave the Europeans. No native people in the hemisphere withstood European takeover. 

The destruction of native American culture, which for most peoples in what is now the United States meant loss of land, language, and way of life, may account for the inability of the curators at the NMAI to encounter history. Where the curators at the NMAAHC grapple with the complex ways human societies change, some exhibits at the American Indian deny that change happens at all.

There are three major exhibits in the large building. The first hall, Our Universe, portrays a timeless world in which native peoples live “in harmony with the animals, plants, spirit world, and the people around us,” on the same land on which their ancestors have dwelt from time immemorial. In reality, of course, Amerindians had spent the last several millennia much like other humans; Amerindians hunted other species to extinction, fought wars of conquest, and killed the conquered or reduced them to servitude.  

Nation to Nation, the second hall, displays real treaties between the United States and Indian tribes, but it places them within a mythical narrative of “Two-Row diplomacy.” This is presented as a doctrine under which native peoples and Americans “are traveling on the river of life together side by side…. People in the ship aren’t going to try to steer the canoe; people in the canoe aren’t going to try to steer the ship.’” This concept is embodied by a dramatic artifact, the sole object on display in the first room of the exhibit: a wampum belt with Two Rows of dark shells running across many rows of white shells. The object on display is described as a replica of a belt created to commemorate a 1613 Treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois. 

What the exhibit does not say is that by contrast with the very real promises made in the authentic treaties on display, promises that actually were made and broken by the United States, nothing about the “Two-Row Wampum Treaty” is real. The genuinely old wampum belt, of which the one on display is a replica, was made long after the purported treaty. The “report” of the treaty containing the poetic language about ship and canoe is taken from a modern forgery. There is no evidence that there ever was a 1613 treaty.[1]

The newest of the museum’s three exhibits, The Great Inka Road, puts the technological legerdemain involved in building the 15th century Inca road system of on dramatic display. One of the uses of those roads, of course, was to facilitate the forced migration of subaltern populations. Inca roads were trails of tears shed by conquered peoples force-marched hundreds of miles in ethnic removals designed to break up ethnic groups, destroy cultural attachments, and reduce the likelihood of rebellion. 

The dangerous, deadly, backbreaking labor of building the great Inca roads was extracted as mit’a, a labor tax. Because the Inca left no written descriptions, we know little about how or from whom this grueling labor was forced, but the

curators confidently describe it as given under the principle of “ayni (reciprocity), the central code of the Andean peoples… based on the idea that members of a community support one another.” This, then, was an Empire where recently conquered people supposedly volunteered to leave home and lift large blocks of cut stone up steep mountainsides. According to the curators, the Inca system stands in sharp contrast with that of the Spanish Empire. Spaniards “manipulated the mit’a system, compelling the indigenous people to provide labor.” “Many people died,” hauling rock in Spanish mines.

I wish I could persuade myself that The Great Inka Road is a satire, because a hoax perpetrated by a subversive curator aiming to overturn Postcolonial Theory would be easier to excuse than Smithsonian curators running a museum that peddles fairy tales. The claim made by the exhibits is that that if the United States would fulfill its treaty obligations, Indian nations could resume their once and future lives “in harmony with the animals, plants, spirit world, and the people around us.” 

I felt the great sadness that I once felt standing in Taos Pueblo, an arrestingly evocative village of handsome, ancient, and almost uniformly uninhabited adobe dwellings that may be the oldest continuously inhabited place in the United States. Few young people choose to live there, but even if they did, there is no way to turn the clock back to 1491. And I do not know if it will be possible to construct a meaningfully Indian identity that can move into the future.

I was almost alone in the galleries when I visited. This may explain why space once devoted to exhibitions seems to have been given over to offices, gift shops, children’s learning and play areas, and expansion of the Museum’s popular restaurants. 

The NMAAHC, by contrast, teems with visitors who cannot help but be moved by the depth of tragedy on display. The difference may be that while the American Indian presents the story of a lost world that people tenaciously but futilely struggle to recreate, the African American tells the story of people who rise from history’s depths, then rise and rise again, striving towards an achievable goal.

Ascending through the building has something of the feel of an enormous reunion; visitors connect, sharing stories with strangers. By the time you get to the top, you are part of a celebration of America. 

Stepping from the escalator on an upper floor you encounter Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac. Set on a pedestal like a jewel, it may in fact be the ultimate American objet d’art. Just seeing it makes people smile. And smiling feels right.

On the top floor there is a cyclorama to which I would like to award an Oscar for Best Museum Installation. Few adults and no children can resist dancing at least a little as the music surges and basketballs fly onscreen, but after a moment the visitors pause, and watch, and listen. I stood, mesmerized by words.  

you said you wanted a poem.

now whatchu gon’ do with it.

                             jessica Care moore, 2014


Posted on 27 March 2017

DIANA MUIR APPELBAUM is the author of Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (UPNE, 2002). She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.


[1] Gehring, Charles T., William A. Starna, and William N. Fenton. "The Tawagonshi Treaty of 1613: The Final Chapter." New York History 68, no. 4 (1987): 373-93. The Journal of Early American History, vol. 3, no. 1 (2013), devoted a special issue to “Early Iroquoian-European Contacts: The Kaswentha Tradition, the Two Row Wampum Belt, and the Tawagonshi Document, 2013,”