You don’t even need to go inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture to get the point. Imagine the alphabet soup of agencies that govern the National Mall gave you a site, just to the right of the Washington Monument. When you came to them with your first idea, they cut it down. Too tall. So you draw a box next to the monument, a dotted square against the green lawn and the blue sky. Into that square you could fit a concrete donut like SOM’s Hirshhorn Museum, or a stone prism like I.M. Pei’s East Wing, or another box with columns like most of the other museums.
But you decide you didn’t have to fill that square or make a solid. Instead, you’ll make a gem. Your museum will be smaller, lacier, more mutable. Gold in the morning and glowing at night. The NMAAHC works like a power player who only speaks in a whisper. You have to lean in.
The $540 million museum, which officially opens on Saturday, September 24, couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment. The twin missions embodied in its clunky name seem to speak directly to the events of this year. #Blacklivesmatter has foregrounded African-Americans’ continuous struggle for equality, making the museum’s history section painfully current, while African-American excellence in popular culture has never been more obvious—even as the push for representation on screen continues.
“We were all cursing when it didn’t open last year, but I think it has special power now,” says architect David Adjaye, the project’s lead designer. “Every generation thinks we know the story, we’ve grown past it, we’re integrated, we’re done, and then a decade later there is memory loss. We go back to stigmatizing and dividing. In the 18th and 19th century, museums were about understanding the world. Now [that] we understand the world, we have to understand each other.”