Museum of African American History displays range from slavery to Prince

Opening next month in Washington, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture investigates 400 years of US society

From slave shackles to Prince’s tambourine: when the Smithsonian’s African American museum opens next month, it will offer visitors a layered journey through the long and complicated history of black people in America written in artifacts large and small, old and new.

Most of the museum’s larger installations – a guard tower from the Angola prison in Louisiana; the Parliament-Funkadelic “mothership” retrieved from frontman George Clinton’s home – have been in place since at least this spring. Many, like the guard tower, which was transported more than 1,000 miles on the back of an oversized flatbed truck, had to be in place before the building could even be finished.

But as the public opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture draws near, Smithsonian Magazine has released details about some of the artifacts that, while physically smaller, still represent monumental moments in the history of black Americans. The list spans some 400 years of US society, from the barbarism of the slave trade to the outsized cultural achievements of black Americans in decades past.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch stands in front of one of the museum’s engraved walls.
Museum director Lonnie Bunch stands in front of one of the museum’s engraved walls. Photograph: Paul Holston/AP

Arranged chronologically from the building’s basement up through its three glass stories, exhibitions about pre-colonial, pre-enslavement Africa greet visitors. In short order, the exhibitions turn to the transatlantic trade that brought more than 12 million Africans to the western hemisphere in shackles, displaying a genuine pair of 17th- or 18th-century iron wrist locks.

They are probably one of the most poignant objects we have in our collection,” said Kinshasha Holman, deputy director of the museum. “It’s something that doesn’t ever allow us to forget that we as African Americans were born of a county built on the enslavement and the ownership of human beings.”

“If these shackles could speak, they would say it took the resources of an entire society to create slave ships,” Charles Johnson, scholar and author of the historical novel Middle Passage told Smithsonian magazine about the artifact. “Everyone in slave-trading societies, even those who never owned a slave, was implicated.”

The original ambrotype portrait – an early form of photography captured on glass – of Frederick Douglass is on display marking the nation’s fight for abolition and subsequent civil war. The abolitionist, speaker, writer and freedman was also the most photographed American of the 19th century. Deborah Willis, a scholar of African American photography at New York University, told Smithsonian Magazine that Douglass believed the emerging technology of photography “was a powerful instrument of racial uplift”.

According to Willis, “Douglass believed photos ‘could challenge the racist caricatures of black people that pervaded the United States and beyond with images that communicated black humanity, self-worth and achievement’.”

In the 1940s, in the pre-dawn of the civil rights era, Dr Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie conducted what may be one of the most far-reaching social science studies of the 20th century. Clark’s “doll tests” demonstrated the way white supremacist ideology infects black people at miraculously young ages, asking black schoolchildren from segregated and unsegregated schools to pick whether they preferred a white or a black doll. The Clarks’ findings, that black children from segregated schools were more likely to prefer white dolls, played a part in the landmark supreme court decision in Brown v Board of Education that made segregation illegal in the US. One pair of black and white dolls used in the experiments are exhibited in the museum as well.

An exhibit depicts the life and presidency of Barack Obama and his family.
An exhibit depicts the life and presidency of Barack Obama and his family. Photograph: Paul Holston/AP

Fast-forward through time about 50 years: the museum’s third floor will feature a tambourine from Prince’s 1990 Nude tour. “He was always looking forward, working to expand his knowledge and understanding,”Sheila E, a musician and longtime Prince collaborator said to Smithsonian Magazine. “He pushed every boundary of art and challenged every concept of the way things were ‘supposed’ to be, in music and life.”

The music section of the museum also features singer Chuck Berry’s trademark red Cadillac and film reels of jazz musician Cab Calloway’s home movies.

More than 100 years in the making, plans for an African American history museum in the nation’s capital date back to a 1915 meeting of black Union army veterans, frustrated with discrimination and racism. Their efforts led to a presidential commission gathered by Herbert Hoover, but little else. The idea was essentially mothballed for more than half a century before re-emerging in the 1970s on the heels of civil rights advances.

The now realized museum, in a prominent location on the national mall and in the shadow of the Washington monument, was approved in 2003 and architects broke ground in 2012, with Barack Obama in attendance. In September, the nation’s outgoing first black president will help celebrate its grand opening.

The president will be prominently featured in the museum’s A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond exhibition, which illustrates the impact of African Americans on social, economic, political and cultural life. The exhibit spans from the death of Martin Luther King Jr to Obama’s second election and features dozens of pieces of campaign memorabilia from his historic 2008 and 2012 victories.


Jamiles Lartey

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'A welcome rebuke to dead white men': The Smithsonian's African American museum finally arrives
A century in the making, and now completed by Britain’s David Adjaye, the Smithsonian’s gleeful, gleaming upturned pagoda more than holds its own against the sombre Goliaths of America’s monument heartland

Oliver Wainwright

16, Sep, 2016 @6:14 AM

Article image
Triumph of truth: new museum upends 'great denial' of African American history
The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture is a tour de force of more than 3,000 artifacts with a mission to ‘tell the unvarnished truth’

David Smith in Washington

15, Sep, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
'Already iconic': David Adjaye's black history museum wins design of the year
The British architect and four practices triumph for their bold addition to the Washington DC Mall, inspired by African sculpture and chronicling slave history. Is it a worthy winner?

Oliver Wainwright

25, Jan, 2018 @10:25 PM

Article image
Scalpers sell free tickets to Smithsonian African American History Museum
Tickets to the museum, issued for specific blocks of time due to high demand, have reportedly hit Craigslist for as much as $200

Mazin Sidahmed in New York

22, Sep, 2016 @6:19 PM

Article image
Washington DC’s monument to black history
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, completed by UK architect David Adjaye, opens this week

Rowan Moore

18, Sep, 2016 @9:00 AM

Museum focuses on slavery
The murdered black teenager Anthony Walker features in the International Slavery Museum, which opens this week in Liverpool.

Helen Carter

21, Aug, 2007 @10:54 PM

Article image
'We want our riches back' – the African activist taking treasures from Europe's museums
Mwazulu Diyabanza has been fined and jailed for entering museums and forcibly removing ‘pillaged’ African artefacts. He tells our writer why the British Museum is now in his sights

Kim Willsher

07, Feb, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
'Look without looting': the Imperial War Museum charts a history of destruction
From burning books to bombed Buddhas, a new exhibition looks at the cultural destruction of war – and the controversial reconstruction efforts that follow

Oliver Wainwright

03, Jul, 2019 @4:11 PM

Article image
Buffalo jumps and handmade lingerie: the Native American artists 'reversing colonialism'
Slaughter grounds thick with buffalo remains and a savaging of Thanksgiving myths are two of the highlights in the new wave of indigenous art heading for Britain

Matthew Wilcox

04, Dec, 2019 @11:04 AM

Article image
‘It’s about ethics’: Nigeria urges British Museum to follow US and repatriate bronzes
Culture minister says UK institution ‘should learn from what has happened’ as Smithsonian returns 29 Benin artefacts

David Smith in Washington

11, Oct, 2022 @8:19 PM