National Museum of African American History and Culture

DC Day 1

The first day of the DC seminar started at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). This was my first time visiting, and I had high expectations for my visit. I was not disappointed. I spent most of my visit in the History Galleries, which are immersive because the first floor you enter is dark and dim, and as you go forward in time the lighting slowly gets brighter and it is barely noticeable. Videos and audio play throughout in the background. The video screens ranged in size from the typical television screen to a large television coming out of the floor in the middle of a room. There are many opportunities to interact with technology throughout the museum, but it is not distracting, it enhances the story.

The museum tackles the African American story in both a broad and personal way, for example, in the section about slavery maps show the countries slaves were taken from and where they ended up, but the background image is a collection of ship names, the final port, the number of slaves on the ship, and the number of slaves who made it alive.

Names of slave ships

It is very powerful to see the details of such a broad concept. This juxtaposition was evident in several galleries. When leaving the area about slavery and walking into the next room I was stopped in my tracks by a statue of Thomas Jefferson with bricks stacked behind him, which were inscribed with the names of Jefferson’s slaves.

Thomas Jefferson statue

I immensely enjoyed the lunch counter interactive in the Civil Rights section of the exhibition. The first thing I saw was one of the Woolworth counter stools, which I picked as my object for the pre-seminar assignment. Once I got over my excitement in seeing that stool, I realized there was an entire counter with digital screens and lunch stools. The screens are designed to look like a menu you would see if you were at a Woolworth’s counter. There are different scenarios, such as sit-ins, education, and the Freedom Rides, and you choose a scenario and answer questions about how you would react to those various situations. It is quite an ethical dilemma, and it is striking how brave and courageous the African Americans who were part of these situations and protests were. I honestly do not know if I would have had the strength they did. This interactive was very powerful for me.

Woolworth’s lunch counter stool
Lunch counter interactive
Lunch counter interactive menu

The second half of the day was spent learning about the Empathetic Museum with Gretchen Jennings. Our discussion focused on institutional empathy, which is guided by the museum’s mission, guidelines, and training. The Maturity Model developed by the team at the Empathetic Museum is a great tool for understanding how a museum can become empathetic and see where they currently fall. It made me think about the opportunities available for museums to interact with their communities and be a place that every person can go to in both good times and bad.