While its history and present holds a lot of tragedy and drama, I also, or maybe therefore, think the US is an extremely intruiging country and culture. The immense diversity never ceases to enthrall me, so many cultural expressions, beliefs and identities that still all unite in one huge, huge country. When I went to school, we were studying the US a lot, manifest destiny and the American dream were our daily conversation topics, but still it feels that I never fully grasp all there is to the Land of Liberty.
Going to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture was thus an excellent way to add to my knowledge and understanding. It was at the same time an overwhelming exhibition that is hard to recount, with three chronological floors packed with information, and three thematic floors full of facts.
The entire museum goes in an almost solemn brown and gold theme and its architecture is simply beautiful. The first thing I learned was that Portugal was a major player in slave trade, something I definitely had no idea about. It doesn’t seem like the Portuguese are very keen on discussing their role, but they transported nearly 6 million African captives to the Americas, only England outperformed them. The stories of the trip are heart-breaking, on some ships 350 out of 700 passengers died and many killed themselves by jumping into the Ocean.
It is impossible to deny that the bigger part of the museum is somewhat depressing. It tells the story of mothers who kill their children to spare them a live in slavery and of a new nation establishing a serious paradox with its Declaration of Independence that declared all men equal, but not quite all. The museum takes you all through the Civil War, mentions famous activists and – I find this worth mentioning as it sadly is not yet something you can take for granted in museum work – highlights in particular the women who were part of the movement. It continues in great detail about segregation and integration, sit-ins and the Civil Rights Movement, accompanied by many poignant quotes on the walls. When the chronological third floor ends with Obama, it’s hard not to be affected by what the museum calls A People’s Journey.
The three thematic floors were about sports and music, media and military, theater and travel. Because it took me so long to get through the lower part, I only had limited time to see those floors but I did learn about the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute, it kind of occured to me that Oprah Winfrey is black (I guess I don’t think of her primarily as a person of color) and I realized how heavily influenced music was by African Americans.
Not only is this collection enormous and well-displayed, it is also entirely free of charge. The museum is a Smithsonian museum and I actually had to look up who this awesome Smithson person was who has really blessed the American people despite never having set foot on US soil himself. He was a British scientist who left all his wealth to his nephew, stipulating that it be used “”to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The Smithsonian Institution was created and is today running nineteen museums, nine research centers, and a zoo. And you get to visit all of them for free!