WASHINGTON — A year after it opened, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has helped change the landscape of Washington. It remains one of the hottest tickets in town, it is an essential stop for tourists, and it has succeeded in attracting an engaged, multicultural and international audience. It has also changed the center of gravity on the Mall, drawing crowds to its symbolic nodal point, where the Washington Monument connects the White House and Jefferson Memorial to the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial. There is an energy along 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW that feels new, and welcome, in the city.
It has also settled into its site, and whatever reservations remain about its basic form — a sharp break with Washington’s tradition of monumental masonry architecture — are mitigated, at night, when light filters through the latticework of its three-tiered metal corona. Like so many large buildings in the ceremonial core of Washington, now that it’s there, it seems always to have been there.
This past year has presented a formidable test for the new museum. The crowds have been enormous, and you can see some of the strains on the building, from basic wear and tear to an escalator out of operation. The museum demonstrated its importance and necessity after a noose was left inside, one of two that were apparently symbolic attacks directed at Smithsonian visitors during an ugly period last spring. And it debuted, and has established its identity, during some of the most racially fraught months of the past half-century.
When the museum opened to journalists last September, it wasn’t finished. One of its most striking features, the underground Contemplative Court, or reflection room, where water rains gently from an oculus in the ceiling into a shallow, lighted pool below, was still a work in progress. The room is built under the plaza space that extends to Constitution Avenue, and from the outside the oculus is contained within a curious circular structure wrapped in a continuous bench. The purpose of the room was to help visitors transition from the underground galleries, devoted to the darkest chapters of African American history, to the upper-floor spaces devoted to the cultural and social organization and artistic, scientific, political and athletic accomplishment.
Now that the reflective space is open, and has become a favorite spot in the museum, it stands for both the strengths and weaknesses of the museum’s larger form, created by lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon. The building is conceptually strong, but sometimes weak on details. The drama of light and water in the Contemplation Court is as beautiful and striking as the basic design of the corona on the building’s exterior, but there is already corrosion on the ceiling panels near where the water is released.
Placing the history galleries underground was a virtue-of-necessity response to the evolution of the museum during the design and review process, which led to some 60 percent of the interior space being located underground. The architects responded with a dramatic, even cavernous, open gallery, with a slightly canted wall that seems to hold back primal forces of the world above, and on which are now projected powerful images of African American political struggle. This was an intellectually appealing idea, but it has led to a problem that still needs to be solved: A bottleneck of visitor traffic where the elevators open into the first history galleries.
These spaces feel more than just symbolically dark and claustrophobic. They don’t invite the lingering and study that the historical material there deserves. One feels inclined to push through and skip the proliferation of wall text and small capsules of cultural and demographic information. Yet it is here, in these overwhelmed galleries, that the first and perhaps most essential lessons of the African American experience are told: That slavery was a transcontinental trade that enriched North and South alike, and that it was based, justified and sustained on the creation of a racial identity and insidious definition of slavery as “black.” Here, at the lowest point in the galleries, one learns of the roots of slavery and how those roots offer ongoing sustenance for our country’s darkest feelings; but there is hardly room to turn around, no time to think, no mental space to absorb the gravity of this message.
It is unfortunate that flaws are the first experience of the building for most visitors, especially given how well other aspects of the museum have turned out. It is dense with information and rewards multiple visits. And throughout the building, one sensed a large crowd on its scrupulous best behavior, everyone meticulously nice to one another, as if to say, here, at least, we will show that we can all get along.
That is no small accomplishment. Of all the changes to the social landscape of Washington, D.C., this elaborate politesse may be constrained within the walls and corona of the museum. But it exists, and perhaps it represents more than just nervous reticence when it comes to issues of race. Perhaps it represents hope.