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Washington DC’s new kid on the block

Smithsonian’s latest addition in Washington DC is a museum dedicated entirely to African American history and culture

Washington DC’s new kid on the block
Image: National Museum of African American History and Culture

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A slave ship’s iron ballast, Chuck Berry’s 1973 Cadillac, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves are all here. At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is gripping the US, the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors on 24 September. 

Dedicated entirely to the black experience in the US, the $540m (£441m) project is 13 years in the making and marks Smithsonian’s 19th — and newest — museum. Joining the ranks of the National Mall’s mostly chalk white museums, the bronze three-tiered building was designed in the shape of a Yoruba crown by Tanzanian-born David Adjaye.

Sink below ground to begin a chronological journey through Africa, and ascend as a harrowed history of slavery, segregation and the fight for civil rights plays out. The galleries upstairs, meanwhile, focus on African Americans’ achievements in fields such as music, sport, arts and the military. 

A number of the 36,000 artefacts on display are huge: a segregated 1920s railcar; a watchtower from Angola Prison; slave cabins from 1853. It’s the only museum of this size dedicated to giving voice to the struggles and successes of black Americans — and it’s free.

Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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