Art / Architecture / Museums

Sneak Peek of the African American History Museum!

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open on September 24th, 2016, however that didn’t stop Top Secret Washington from getting a behind-the-scenes tour on June 5th, 2016, almost four months early!


Seeing the museum dusty and draped gave me the opportunity to study it’s architecture and appreciate all that went into it. Judson McIntire, chief architect of this project for the Smithsonian, is rightly proud of this project. Walking around the construction site, seeing the attention to detail, the thought and planning that goes into such a project was amazing. When the crowds come, they might not notice every single aspect, but I was grateful to Jud and his team for everything they have done.


This project actually started in 1915 when African American vets first raised the issue. In 1929 Herbert Hoover appointed a committee to fund a building. In the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s much discussion and bickering took place — some from other African American museums that thought this building might take some attention away from their already established projects such as the Anacostia Community Museum. In 2001, legislation was re-introduced, and now, finally, fifteen years later, the dream of so many people will soon be a reality.


Some of the things you might not notice when touring the museum is that the angles of the roofline are at the same degree as the Washington Monument that towers behind it. Please pardon my photos that don’t show this well. The gorgeous lattice brown facade is called a corona — and relates to masks and tribal decorations. The backside of the museum features a deeply shaded porch with a water feature. The messages engraved on the pool are inspiring but the real purpose of the water is to provide cooling to families who need a break and are perhaps eating their lunch in the cool recesses of this feature.

The building is truly a masterpiece. From the inside, the corona cloaks the space in a warm, bronze-colored lacy veil. It mutes the sun, turning our focus internal, a literal and symbolic great divide between what is and what was. It frames specially chosen views as well. Imagine coming down a dark corridor and seeing a postcard-perfect view of one of our nation’s most treasured monuments, framed in latticework. The contrast is so stunning that I, and others in our party, literally gasped. We were drawn to the windows as mindlessly as moths to a lantern — hypnotized by the beauty outside.


Pictures speak a thousand words, so here are my many, many photos of the museum, including the cloaked airplane from a Tuskegee pilot and Chuck Berry’s cherry red convertible. Also shown is the Poolesville, MD home of the Jones Family who were freed slaves. Interesting fact, the museum was literally built around the train shown below — a Pullman car that was the segregated area for African American’s traveling during the Jim Crowe era. (See the slide show at the end of this post)

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More than anything, this collection, like that of the Holocaust Museum, is vitally important to show where we’ve been so we never forget it. The museum showcases such wonderful positive things, and it makes me proud of the progress we’ve made, but it also reminds me of how much farther we have yet to go.

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9 replies »

  1. Thanks for posting this. Can’t wait to see the museum. Shedding light on this despicable part of our history is absolutely imperative. We must not forget. And we must keep working toward equal justice for all.

  2. Thank you for the early peek inside! I’ve been admiring the iron-work facade of the museum every time I drive down Constitution Avenue. The corona is gorgeous. What is it like when you’re inside the museum looking out on the Mall through the corona?

    • It’s really beautiful, Krista. The architects chose specific views to frame. You come down a dark corridor of displays and suddenly, the sun shines in with postcard perfect views of the most lovely sights. Elsewhere, it’s like being ensconced in a veil of gorgeous bronze-colored lace. You will adore it.

  3. Wow! 100 years after the idea was first put forward, it’s finally coming true. I loved this behind-the-scenes look, Diana–thank you for posting,

  4. Thanks for covering this as only an insider with your connections can! Hope to see it one day.

    Bob J.

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