The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is opening in just a week and a half—and a lucky group of visitors got a sneak peek today.
About 100 guests, including politicians, activists, and social media stars, are touring the museum and tweeting and Instagramming what they see with the hashtag #APeoplesJourney. Their posts are giving us our first glimpse into a museum that has been in the works in one form or another since 1915.
Clifton Kinnie, 19, a sophomore at Howard University and an activist in Ferguson, Missouri, told me he appreciated how the museum’s design highlighted the African-American experience, from exhibits about slavery at the bottom of the museum to exhibits about President Obama’s election and the Black Lives Matter movement on the top floors. Photos of videos from the civil rights era made him think of the protests he attended over the past two years.
“It really reminded me that the fight is still very much alive today and history is still very much alive today,” he said. “You can walk through history and know we’re living history too… They really dive into the details you don’t get in the classroom.”
While reviews of the 400,000-square foot museum have been highly positive so far, there’s one key historical figure who won’t be very well represented in the collection. The Smithsonian will display no major artifacts of Martin Luther King, Jr., at least not in time for its opening.
The absence is due to legal wrangling between King’s three living children, Bernice, Martin III, and Dexter, who have closely guarded the copyright to their father’s words and image. While museum officials have met with the family about the possibility of acquiring an artifact like King’s traveling bible, the children are expected to charge a huge premium, the Washington Post reported this week. “Given the family’s behavior this last 20 years, they’re unlikely to have any interest in sharing without a large upfront payment,” historian David Garrow told the Post.
The museum still includes historical information about King, of course, and he plays a big role in displays about the civil rights movement. But while museum guests can see a dress made by Rosa Parks, the fedora worn by Michael Jackson, and the Olympic medals won by runner Carl Lewis, the most personal connection they’ll get of King is through photographs, vinyl records and buttons.
Deborah Richardson, executive vice president of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, bizarrely defended the lack of King artifacts in an interview with the Post. “Dr. King, if you look at the whole arc of our experience, thousands of years before there were records of Western society, Dr. King and his work is just a blip,” she said.
The absence didn’t seem to have a huge impact on the visitors who got an early tour on Wednesday. Less well-known heroes like Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to Congress and the first woman to run for president, get their due in the museum:
Some of the most affecting artifacts on display are those from the slave trade, including an actual auction block that people were sold on:
The museum includes exhibits on some of the most recent events in black history, like the Black Lives Matter movement:
And it allows visitors to record their own personal stories of being black in America:
The architecture of the monumental building, with its tiered, bronze facade, has also won acclaim. Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, called it “the most impressive and ambitious public building to go up in Washington in a generation.”
The inside is just as gorgeous:
Kinnie said that when he first entered the museum, he turned around, went back outside, and stared up at the building for five minutes. “It’s breathtaking,” he said. “It’s a chronicle of our history.”