Curating the Discussion of Slavery at the NMAAHC

NMAAHC, African American History
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC with the Washington Memorial in the background.

The National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) opened its doors on September 12, 2016. Almost a full two years later in 2018, visitor interest remains high, with advanced tickets still selling out with a 3-month lead time. The demand and urgency of people’s desire to attend the museum demonstrates the fulfillment of a long-time need for a space like NMAAHC that provides an accurate and unabridged history of the African-American experience in the United States. Knowing that African-American stories and contributions are generally handled as periphery or side notes in many museums, Marabou was excited to see how an institution centered in the African-American experience would address a familiar history. The NMAAHC tells a US historical narrative with clear, direct language. The unsavory parts are not omitted and vague euphemisms aren’t used. For this post, Marabou is focusing on the first floor, C3 of the NMAAHC history galleries.

To access the historical galleries, all visitors are required to take an elevator to level C3, the lowest floor of the museum, three levels underground. Entering the clear, glass elevator, timelines on either side start with “Today.” As you descend, you travel back in time, years relating to significant events in African American history are highlighted such as 2008 (Barack Obama elected President) and 1865 (President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation). The ground floor opens on to the year 1400. The C3 gallery text introduces both the contents of the floor, “Slavery & Freedom 1400-1877” and the plain, clear language that visitors will read throughout the museum. This tone of frankness and truth is set by a 2005 quote from John Hope Franklin, one of America’s most accomplished historians with seminal work published on African American History. The quote states, “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.” Marabou sees this idea of “unvarnished” – not shiny, not embellished, not adjusted from its original form – throughout the three levels and finds the use of direct language incredibly impactful and empathy building. Sharing space with Dr. Franklin’s quote in the gallery’s introduction are these two sentences, “For the first time, people saw other human beings as commodities–things to be bought, sold, and exploited to make enormous profits. This system changed the world.” Unvarnished truth, the stark reality of slavery and its impact. The message is communicated clearly and will be received, if the visitor is open to receive.

From the elevator, visitors move on to see the parallel histories of European countries involved in the slave trade on the left, England, Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and powerful African nations and kingdoms on the right, including Benin, the Akan of the Gold Coast (Ashanti, Fante, Baoule, and Akwamu), and the Bakongo of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. Visualizing contemporaneous African and European nations side by side, and explaining that each has power and influence, is something that doesn’t happen very often, not in museums, not in history textbooks. This approach fills in one of the many contextual gaps in western historical narratives: the voice and agency of Africa during the period of slave trading.

Leaving the continent of Africa, there is a small gallery that recreates the bottom of a slave ship; adult-sized and child-sized shackles are displayed with an iron ballast. The ballast was installed “to counterbalance the weight of the human cargo on a slave ship.” NMAAHC uses objects in a way that ties back to the humanity of the enslaved, reminding us that people were enslaving other people, binding wrists, denying basic human rights, and treating human beings like inanimate cargo. There is no shying away from the brutality of slavery, Marabou finds this a good thing. If we continue to avoid conversations about the inherent violence of slavery, it’s possible for the truths of trauma to get lost as time goes on. Another way the museum puts objects in context is the display of a Field Whip laid over an illustration of “The Lash,” a illustration showing a white man whipping a black enslaved man. The description of the whip says it was an instrument of torture “used to increase productivity” and depending on how well the whip was made, it could be a source of pride for the owner. “The Lash”’s description describes that “lashings could be so severe they resulted in permanent loss of mobility and sometimes brain damage.” A whip alone in a display case would not have the same impact. The NMAAHC’s marriage of object, image, and words invites the visitors to face ugly and uncomfortable history.

slavery, African American history
Field Whip (Gift of Oprah Winfrey) laid over a printed illustration entitled “The Lash” (Library of Congress). Floor C3 of the NMAAHC.

While the museum reminds visitors of the humanity of those who were enslaved there is another clear emphasis on teaching and reminding visitors about slavery’s contribution to the growth and establishment of countries worldwide, particularly the United States. One museum label entitled “The Human Cost” explains,

The average lifespan of enslaved Africans who worked on colonial sugar and rice plantations was seven years. Extreme physical demands relied on equally extreme instruments of torture to ensure control over enslaved peoples and to protect plantation profits. Enslaved Africans were denied human dignity and the benefits of the economies and societies that they built for others.

Marabou spent some time reading and re-reading this label. In just a few sentences the following is acknowledged:

  • the economic contribution of and reliance on slavery
  • the sacrifice of human lives
  • the inherent violence of the institution of slavery
  • and the denial of enslaved people to partake in the very infrastructure they made possible.

So much is captured in this one museum label that doesn’t get addressed in hundreds of pages of writing on this time period.

The NMAAHC informs some visitors and reminds others that it was not just those who enslaved people or traded enslaved people who benefited from the institution of slavery. Slavery touched and permeated everyday life in America. One quote from the gallery text, “1514-1886: The Transatlantic Slave Trade” states this clearly,

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was the largest forced migration of people in world history. Profits from the sale of enslaved humans and their labor laid the economic foundation for Western Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. The human cost was the immense physical and psychological toll on the enslaved. Their lives were embedded in every coin that changed hands, each spoonful of sugar stirred into a cup of tea, each puff of a pipe, and every bite of rice.

Continuing through the gallery, visitors encounter “the founding fathers,” including Thomas Jefferson. A bronze statue of him stands before an uneven wall composed of 609 bricks, each brick to represent a person Jefferson enslaved. Slavery’s roots run deep in America, down and past our political foundation.

Thomas Jefferson, slavery, African American History, American History
A bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in front of 609 stacked bricks, each brick representing a person he enslaved.

Former presidents are represented just a few feet from audio of first-hand accounts from enslaved people detailing what it was like to be auctioned and bought, and for a mother to be separated from her young baby when they are sold to two different families. Many voices and perspectives are provided, including alternative interpretations of objects and moments celebrated in US history. One example is Eli Whitney’s mechanical cotton gin. History textbooks will tell students that the cotton gin revolutionized farming and fueled the growth of the cotton and textile industry. The textbook doesn’t tell you that the cotton gin also fueled the growth of slavery. The museum explains,

Before Whitney’s gin, one person could clean one pound of cotton a day. The gin increased that number by 4,900 percent. This left a major bottleneck–picking enough cotton to fill the gins. Slave owners forced enslaved African Americans to work longer and harder and demanded more land in the West.

If you consider the invention of the mechanical cotton gin as a force demanding more and more enslaved labor and understand the manner in which the United States “acquired” more land for cultivation in the south and west (through removal of Native Americans), you gain a very different perspective on “American progress.”

The C3 level concludes with the Civil War and emancipation. The C2 level continues with the Reconstruction Period and segregation, reminding visitors that despite slavery being over, oppression was exercised through a different, but similar system. Compared to other institutions that may make glancing references to slavery or talk about the African American experience in relation to the Civil War, the NMAAHC goes deep and does not let its visitor off the hook. There aren’t places for visitors to “take a breather” with some light-hearted content. Marabou likes this and thinks this is a very important curatorial choice. In reality, for free and enslaved blacks from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries there wasn’t much if any breathing room. The institution of slavery smothered and suffocated many to further benefit the privileged. To truly understand, and maybe even empathize, with this history, visitors need to feel the weight. The recognition and confirmation of this weight and gravity can also be liberating. The people, stories, and perspectives shared at the NMAAHC have historically not been given space, light, or an audience. For the descendants of enslaved people, the trauma of their ancestors and the generational trauma passed down is acknowledged and shared as truth.

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