The architecture of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is an act of both celebration and protest. (The second in a series of articles on the museum.)
The city can be a powerful form of political myth, and Washington, DC, is the premier example.
Political myths dramatize historical events for ideological purposes, in order to strengthen the authority of the status quo. For example, America’s Founding Fathers often are portrayed as motivated only by a virtuous desire for universal freedom and equality, a simplistic depiction that ignores the complex socioeconomic forces behind the Revolution. The National Mall, its buildings, and its monuments, are America’s foundation myth writ large in stone and space. Manfredo Tafuri called the image of the District of Columbia “a timeless, indisputable, completely ‘positive’ Olympus” whose creation “presupposed great optimism and was thoroughly opposed to any polemical doubt.”
In this sense, the city as political myth is ripe for protest, and the National Mall has been the site of many of the most important protests in American history. Most often, these events consist only of people gathering for demonstration. Sometimes, however, they involve building.
Sixteen years ago, I coined the phrase “protest construction” to refer to structures erected as a means of calling attention to a social or political grievance. An example is Resurrection City, a temporary encampment on the National Mall as part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Protest construction typically is temporary and informal, and often it is unauthorized. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a rare example of permanent, formal architecture with many of the traits of protest construction.
The museum is surrounded by neoclassical architecture, and the administrators contend that “the building’s architecture follows classical Greco-Roman form in its use of a base and shaft, topped by a capital.” Yet, the viewer’s first impression of the building is that it’s different. For one thing, most of the iconic structures on the Mall consist of large expanses of white or beige stone, and the NMAAHC’s bronze-colored metal tracery is an elegant but dramatic departure. David Adjaye, who led the design, describes its intent as “a dark presence on the Mall.” As I recounted in an earlier article, much of the stone of the Mall’s most recognized buildings, including the Smithsonian “Castle,” was quarried by slaves, and rejecting that material for the new museum resists that legacy. Max Bond, who served on the design team prior to his death in 2009, was known for selecting building materials associated with African American labor unions, a strategy I once described as “material justice.” It also works in reverse—by avoiding materials with difficult associations. The building’s latticework is inspired in part by the ironwork of Black laborers in the Deep South, but it also conjures up images of basket weaving traditions.
The museum’s form accomplishes the improbable task of being rich in references but seemingly completely new. The three-tiered “corona” echoes West Africa headdresses, a celebratory image of honor, but the term also refers to the top layer of a classical cornice. Historian George Hersey has shown that the corona has a dual meaning in classical architecture, evoking both subordination (“in Rome when a prisoner was taken he or she was said to be sub corona”) and liberation (“a pair of eagle’s wings”), so the museum’s corona could refer to captivity and freedom at the same time. The NMAAHC’s exhibit on the building acknowledges inspiration in Adinkra symbols meaning both independence (”Fawohodie") and slavery (”Epa"). The serrated profile of the corona also is reminiscent of the practice of slaves surreptitiously marking burial sites with broken pottery, symbolizing the release of the spirit from the body. Nearly two thirds of the museum, including the entire history exhibit, is subterranean, and the overall form has the sense of emerging from below, unearthing something buried.
Reviewers have made much of the corona’s angles matching (though upside down) the capstone of the Washington Monument, whose view is framed throughout the interior. To explain the form of a whole building through its relationship with a finial detail of another seems over-inflated, and it’s an odd tribute to a slave-owner. What’s going on here? In one sense, this gesture simply acknowledges the African (Egyptian) origins of the monument’s form, the obelisk. But the word obelisk literally means “Baal's shaft” or “Baal's organ of reproduction,” Baal being an ancient honorific for “lord.” An obelisk is a phallus, a fitting image for “the father of the country” but also a traditional symbol of power. By inverting it, the museum both acknowledges and undermines that image.
The main entrance, on the Mall side, is marked by an enormous freestanding canopy the museum calls “a welcoming porch, which has architectural roots in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora, especially the American South and Caribbean.” Accounts of plantation life in the Antebellum South suggest that even hostile relationships became easier to endure “in the civil atmosphere offered by the shade of a prominent porch.” Yet, the porch, often the most visible part of the “Big House” on a plantation, also was a symbol of prestige, and the museum’s “porch” is detached from the building, as if to resist that particular history. Historian John Michael Vlach writes that slaves on plantations developed a unique sense of space and place: “Black territorial definitions were often made in subtle or clandestine ways and probably went unrecognized by most slaveowners,” and “the simple act of occupying a space was tantamount to appropriating it.”
While it marks the main entrance, the museum’s “porch” faces the Mall, away from Constitution Avenue. The National Mall is alternately called “America’s Front Yard” and “America’s Backyard.” Is the museum’s entry a front porch or a back porch? From a distance, the building is virtually identical on all fours sides, so it doesn’t have an obvious front or back. This uncertainty seems related to Adjaye’s comment that “the African-American community is absolutely integral to understanding the American identity but somehow has been always in the back room.”
At the museum’s opening, President Obama remarked, “This is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other.” In its exhibits and its architecture, the museum is a joyous celebration but also space of resistance. Projected on the wall of the museum’s culture exhibit are the words of author bell hooks: “People resist by telling their story.” Other museums on the Mall have had to address conflicted histories in their subjects, but none has done so with such grace.