“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it," said the great African American author Toni Morrison. In that spirit, the United States has recently seen the opening of three major African American history museums, all seeking to tell once-neglected stories in a powerful way. Here's why you should visit these amazing museums this year.
Harriet Tubman's shawl. Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible. Louis Armstrong's trumpet. These are just some of the 34,000 artifacts in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a new museum which opened in the National Mall on September 24, 2016.
Thirteen years in the making, it will be the first national African American history museum in the United States. Its exhibits reflect the major periods of African American history, from African origins through slavery, reconstruction, the civil rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and the modern day. A water- and light-filled memorial called the Contemplative Court invites visitors to pause and think about their experience at the museum.
The three-tiered, bronze-clad building's design was intended to lift visitors "up into the light," architect David Adjaye says. "It’s not a story of a people that were taken down, but actually a people that overcame and transformed an entire superpower into what it is today." 1
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets N.W.
For years, tours of Southern plantation houses went something like this: Enter through the grand front doors, marvel at the furniture and gardens, and learn about the owners' history. The slaves whose involuntary labor produced all this wealth may have been mentioned briefly, or not at all.
Whitney Plantation, about 35 miles west of New Orleans, turns that experience around entirely. When it opened in 2014, the plantation became the nation's first real slavery museum dedicated to memorializing the lives of enslaved Africans. The personal creation of a wealthy New Orleans lawyer, John Cummings, the museum intends not only to educate visitors but to memorialize slavery's sorrows.
A statue of a black angel cradling a baby is dedicated to the 2,200 enslaved children who died in the parish in the 40 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. A display of 60 ceramic heads represents the brutal execution and beheading of slaves who revolted in 1811. "Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn," said Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor specializing in slavery.2
Whitney Plantation, at 5099 Highway 18 in Wallace, La., is open every day except Tuesday and major holidays. Tickets are $15-$22.
Sit down at the lunch counter inside the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, put on a set of headphones, and you can vividly imagine what it felt like to be a sit-in protester in the 1950s. Shouts and taunts echo in your ears, and the stool itself vibrates as if someone has kicked it.
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights opened in 2014 in downtown Atlanta to immerse visitors in the struggle for civil rights in America, as well as the global fight to protect basic human rights. The experience is moving and unsettling, visitors say. The center also displays a rotating selection of objects from the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection. You might see King's handwritten notes, speeches, sermons, and even his to-do lists.
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is open Tuesday through Sunday at 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard. Tickets are $10-$15.
The International African American Museum in Charleston will depict the lives and unique culture of African-Americans in the Lowcountry region when it opens in 2017. The museum's planned for the former Gadsden’s Wharf site on the Cooper River, where more than 100,000 enslaved Africans entered the United States.3 And the National Museum of African American Music is expected to open in Nashville in 2018, with the goal of preserving the legacy and celebrating the contributions of African American musicians.
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