The National Museum of African American History and Culture

In The Art of Travel Spring 2017, 3. Observing, Washington DC by Daniela1 Comment

I am at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and I am sitting at the end of the exhibit detailing the first years of slavery to the United States of America. The museum itself is very crowded but on my way to the lower level where I am seated, the elevator attendant commented that there are not as many people as there usually are and that the museum must be losing its novel appeal. Several schools and parents have brought their children to the museum, so it is loud with young voices and little hands exploring the pictures and writings they can only somewhat understand. These kids wear light blue polo shirts and navy blue pants with black shoes. Some of them have untied laces but they are not bothered by this. Traveling in groups, people of all ages, not just the children, wind through the preset path that leads through the history of the first slaves and lets out right where I am seated. There are others seated around me. They could be resting their feet or taking a moment to reflect on what they have just seen. Where we are sitting there are no kids and there is no talking. While I sit and watch people reflect, I notice their faces are calm but contemplative, their eyes staring off at an unmoving wall. Some are lost in their phones and take this opportunity to catch up on their social media platforms. Because the space is slightly dark, there is a glow that appears on their faces. The overall mood of this rest area is solemn as the loud, energetic kids do not stop here. The seats are not meant for extended use, they are hard wooden bench-type pieces. Because of the crowds, parents with strollers have a difficult time clearing corners and avoiding the many people that they will inevitably collide with on the other side.

This museum is strategically broken up into two exhibits, one featuring the historic portion and the other the cultural portion. As an observer in the historic portion, there were a few things that caught my attention rather quickly. My first impression of this spot was that it was not designed for people to stay for extended periods that even sitting for half an hour came with its physical discomforts. The original intention of the designers of the space is clear in the materials used, as is clear the flow of the museum itself, which provides such reflective spaces at the end of each hallway. In addition, the material covered in the history portion of this museum is inherently laden with emotion and sadness. Having a space to allow people to reflect and process what they have seen is an important part of the experience. Although the younger participants may not have been as aware of the heaviness of their surroundings, it reminded me of the Anne Frank House Museum, where the museum-goers are encouraged to speak softly and to silence their phones in respect of those attendees that may be experiencing some strong emotional responses to their surroundings. I personally had a strong response to what I was viewing when I arrived to the last portion of the historical exhibit when I saw video footage of the mobilization of various Black Lives Matter rallies alongside clips from the Obama administration. These two powerful media elements from the more relevant historical moments of my life caused an unexpected reaction that I feel certain others were experiencing alongside me, whether in response to the same moment in history or another one.


  1. Hi Daniela, I liked your description of how the space in the museum is organized and what effect it has on the visitors there. It’s clear that room for reflection is much needed in this museum, but it’s interesting that the benches are not made for comfort. I really want to visit it when I get back the States, but I know I’ll have to emotionally prepare myself before going . In my mind I have been associating it with the sort of quality the 9/11 Museum has, so it makes sense to compare it to the Anne Frank House as well. I know it will have a powerful effect on so many visitors and I’m looking forward someday visiting.

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