National Museum of African American History and Culture

1_Empathy / 6D – Spaces, Systems, Objects, Products, Graphics, and Experiences

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) embodies the Black narratives, histories, and culture within the context of America. This space demonstrates the complex racial narrative of African American- expressing the painful tragedies of black American throughout history blended with themes of resiliency, hope, joy and healing. The designers of the museum express this complexity by using the basic Roman-Greco form of base and shaft topped by a capital, while using styles that evoke Black culture. Instead of a traditional Eurocentric neoclassical style that pervades the National Mall, the capital is instead a corona invoking the imagery of the crowns in West African Art. Furthermore, the placement of this museum is on axis with many important historical spaces from history like the White House, the Washington Monument, and other important historical monuments. These axial connections have spatially put the museum in conversation with the other monuments, furthering highlighting the context of race in America.

The front entry of the museum evokes a familiar feeling of a porch- a recognizable space in Southern and Caribbean architecture that has been experienced by black lives in these regions for hundreds of years. This invites viewers into a familiar space before the journey begins. Beginning in the lower floors, viewers are taken through the history of Black lives in America starting with the transcontinental slave trade, working through plantation life, to the civil war and emancipation, up through reconstruction, to the civil rights movement, war on drugs, urban renewal, up to the modern era of mass incarceration and black lives matter movements. These exhibits feature items, texts, and historical accounts, making a powerful experience. These lower floors lay the foundation of black history in the context of America. As the viewers rise out of the foundation, they are taken through upper floors which are light-filled and full of the history of black culture. The dichotomy of the harsh history in the foundation and the hopeful culture of joy in the capital of the museum begins to explore the complex nature of black existence. Situated between the tragic history and joyful culture is a contemplative court featuring a fountain. This space allows visitors to contemplate and reflect on the themes of the museum. NMCAAHC gives a powerful processional experience evoking complex dark histories overlaid with joyous¬ culture that came out of black communities in the face of brutality and oppression. The museum thus becomes a space of healing and reconciliation.


The NMCAAHC is charged with historical references of black experiences in America. The façade of the museum features bronze latticework, recalling the ironwork of enslaved African Americans in places like Louisiana, South Carolina, etc. By utilizing a bronze color pallet instead of the neoclassical color pallet that covers the National Mall (white, red masonry brick, etc.), the designers reflected black lives: existing in the same space, yet different, from the rest of the dominating culture. Within the museum, the latticework has breaks to not only bask the museum in daylight, but frame certain monuments. The Washington Monument, White House, Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and Martin Luther King Jr Memorial are all either framed or on axis with the museum, putting these historical moments in context to the lives of Black Americans. The museum empathizes with the untold stories of African Americans, sharing the pains, sorrows, but also love, laughter and joy of these communities. By representing the spectrum of black lives from the past and looking toward the future, rejoicing in the tragedy and comedy, the museum creates a powerful human experience that influences all people (of all races, genders, ages, and backgrounds) to “feel-into” the Black experience in America.


The Freelon Adjaye Bond and SmithGroup designed the NMAAHC to establish the narrative of Black Americans within the context of the National Mall, the Nation’s space of culture, history, knowledge, and progress. These designers lay out the entire history of African Americans, in all its tragedy, uneasiness, hope, resiliency, and joy. The space is a platform for the dialogue of ongoing racial tensions that the United States has experienced since before its inception. With the complex palimpsest of dark and light themes, the design narrative of the museum provokes a deeply human response of empathy. After the museum shares harsh stories like Emmet Till and joyous talents like Jimi Hendrix, the viewer absorbs and begins to explore the resiliency of individuals throughout history who have lives the black experience in America. In the face of oppression, black lives still produce beauty: the writings of James Baldwin, the music of Aretha Franklin, the poetry of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, just to name a few. The empathetic design of the museum rejoices in pain and joy to begin to chart a path of healing and reconciliation of race relations within America.

4_How might the NMAAHC explore W.E.B Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness” and “mirror stage”?

Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness” expresses the internal conflict that oppressed peoples feel. Oppressed peoples develop a sort of “double vision” seeing themselves through their own lens while simultaneously having to see themselves through the eyes of their oppressors. Du Bois explains the conflicting identity of a Black American: “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, who dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This contradictory identity can be evoked in the NMAAHC. The museum takes the Roman-Greco form of base, shaft, capital yet wrapped in a dynamic bronze skin, different from all the other appearances on the National Mall. While designing this museum, the Freelon Adjaye Bond and SmithGroup had to create a form that fit both the context of the Nation’s capital (ie the underlying structure of neoclassic style) while expressing the identity of the black experience. In a way, this is like Du Bois’ “double consciousness” seeing the museum though the lens of itself and its own narrative, while also seeing itself through the lens of the dominating culture as its set in the Nation’s Capital, a traditionally eurocentric, patriarchical space. Furthermore, the museum becomes a sort of “mirror stage.”

“The black viewer seeks recognition of his own reflected image in a mirror stage that has been surpressed and denied for nearly three centuries” (Gooden, 190). The NMAAHC reflects not only the complex identity of Black Americans, but begins to act as mirror for White Americans reflecting their dark history, culture, etc. As James Baldwin suggested, “what you call someone else, how you talk about someone else, reveals you” and what you do to someone else reveals you. What makes this museum so powerful, is that it forces Americans to recognize themselves and their own cultural identity. The museum, in a sense, is a mirror. A mirror that makes White Americans look at the history and culture of the oppressed minority of African Americans in order to better understand their own history, culture, politics, and identity. This is what empathy can do. This is the beginning of the healing process.