Vassar Quarterly - Spring/Summer 2017 - 28
Above: The lacy panels that form the building's facade. Below: The museum's Contemplation Court, which
offers a place to rest and reflect.
Institution. The Smithsonian's Board of
Regents voted in 2006 to build the museum
on a five-acre site on Constitution Avenue
adjacent to the Washington Monument.
When it came to the architecture, the
museum's director, Lonnie G. Bunch III,
appointed in 2005, envisioned a "dark
presence" on the Mall, something that stood
out amid the alabaster and marble structures
that surrounded it. So the architectural and
engineering team Freelon Adjaye Bond/
SmithGroup created an exterior that features
3,600 dark, bronze-colored, cast-aluminum
panels. Lead architect David Adjaye, who
designed the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo,
Norway, among other high profile buildings,
was the guiding force behind the design of
the panels, which form a three-tiered
exterior reminiscent of a Yoruban caryatid
(a traditional wooden pillar with a crown or
corona at its top).
Observed from afar, the corona looks
dense and opaque, but visitors emerging
from the lower levels of the museum's interior
look up and out through ornate, lace-like
patterns reminiscent of 19th-century ironwork. The dappled panels allow visitors to
take in spectacular views of the Mall, Washington Monument, and Capitol building.
The museum's opening was something
to celebrate, says former AAAVC Co-chair
Karen Roberts Turner '86, who lives in DC.
"I have had the good fortune of watching
the museum come into its being from the
ground up," she says. "I am awestruck by
the architectural majesty of the building
itself, which stands in sharp contrast to the
construction traditions of the neighboring
museums and federal buildings that stand
in the shadow of the Washington Monument.
This juxtaposition seems especially fitting
for a museum that tells the story of a people
whose legacy in this country contrasts so
distinctively from the experience of any
other group of Americans."
Further, says Roberts, "The museum has
put to shame what I thought I knew about my
own history. How little did I know and how
much more I have to learn! The museum is
dense with information, but presents it in an
engaging, artistic, and captivating way.
In doing so, it beautifully unravels the very
complex history of African Americans-full
of trials, tribulations, and triumphs."
This page: NMAAHC Architectural Photography / Paysour portrait, Yassine El Mansouri
In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge
appointed a commission charged with
building a national memorial building as
"a tribute to the Negro's contributions to
the achievements of America," but funding
challenges during the Great Depression
made it impossible. For the next several
decades, proposals found little support. In
the late 1980s, Georgia Congressman John
Lewis and Texas Congressman Mickey
Leland again took up the charge, repeatedly
seeking legislative approval. Lewis continued
to seek approval after Leland died in a plane
crash in 1989.
While constituents debated the ideal
degree of independence of the proposed
institution, where it should be located, how
it would be funded-and even whether
such a museum was warranted-cities like
Cincinnati and Detroit were moving ahead
with their own African American history
museums, and national museums like the
Museum of the American Indian and the
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum were
getting the green light.
In 2001, after a bipartisan coalition again
failed to secure the passage of a bill, President
George W. Bush appointed a federally funded
presidential commission to create an implementation plan.
The National Museum of African
American History and Culture was finally
approved in 2003 by an Act of Congress, which
established it as part of the Smithsonian