Photo: National Museum of African American History and Culture/AlanKarchmer

How to See the National Museum of African American History and Culture in a Day

Washington, D. C. Museums Insider Guides Black Travel
by Maria Iotova Alex Bresler Mar 23, 2022

Time spent inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC, hangs heavy on the soul. This is one of the many reasons it’s among the most vital museums in the entire Smithsonian museum complex.

NMAAHC honors the complexity of Blackness in North America and cherishes the achievements of African Americans who built the nation with their bare hands. To borrow a phrase from one of the museum’s galleries, African Americans have been “making a way out of no way” for generations. NMAAHC chronicles the triumphs and tribulations that have defined these generations, from the history of enslaved Africans to America’s civil rights movements and Black Lives Matter, shedding a light on the country’s thriving Black culture in spite of racial oppression.

Museum curators tell us there’s no right way to see NMAAHC’s 12 exhibitions, almost 37,000 objects, and 183 videos, but they do warn that it’s difficult to accomplish in a single visit. Since museumgoers are unlikely to be able to dedicate an entire three-day weekend to exploring the museum, we visited NMAAHC multiple times to create this guide to navigating 600 years of dense, important history in one day.

Before you go: the #1 piece of advice for visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture

When visiting NMAAHC, mental preparedness is as important as logistical planning. There’s a lot to take in — emotionally and physically given the museum’s 350,000 square feet — and visitors are encouraged to reflect on their own place in history as they tour.

Words like “powerful,” “emotional,” “sad,” and “angry” have all been used to describe the NMAAHC experience. The museum makes space for these reactions and provides visitors with designated “reflections” spaces. Use them. Tempting as it might be to breeze through with one eye on the exhibits and one eye on your smartphone, you’ll get the most out of your visit if you pay the museum the respect it deserves, come with open mind, and leave prepared to chew on everything you learned.

Opening hours, admissions, and the best times to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Although the museum opened in 2016, it remains a compelling attraction, so be prepared for large crowds all year. To enter the museum, all visitors must have timed-entry passes, which can be reserved online up to 30 days before your visit. Same-day passes are also available online starting at 8:15 AM EST, but only a small amount are issued each day, so advance reservations are highly recommended. Like all Smithsonian museums, entry passes are free.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s opening hours are from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM, seven days a week except December 25. (Note that 4:00 PM is the latest you can enter the museum, and exhibitions start closing at 5:15 PM.) The busiest hours are noon to 4:00 PM from Fridays to Sundays, particularly between March and August, and on holidays. If you plan on visiting the museum on a weekend, holiday, or during peak season, come in the morning to avoid long wait times.

Grab a museum map from the information desk when you enter. For more in-depth guidance, download the museum’s mobile app — free WiFi is available on all levels.

Where to start your visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Exterior view of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC

Photo: BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock

It may sound silly, but the best place to start your tour is outside. Adjacent to the Washington Monument, the 400,000-square-foot bronze-hued building that houses the museum is as much a part of the experience as any exhibit. Even its position on the National Mall is emblematic given that The Mall is a platform for America’s democratic values of liberty, equality, and justice.

Award-winning architect David Adjaye designed the three-tiered museum in the image of a Yoruban Caryatid, a type of traditional wooden statue from West Africa that’s shaped like a column and topped with a crown. The patterns on the aluminum panels portray the 19th-century ironwork of enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans. They allow daylight to shine through and, at night, light up the crown from within. The perimeter of the grand porch on the south entrance by the National Mall is also significant, having been symbolically bedded with live oaks. For enslaved peoples, live oaks represented safety, strength, and resilience as they provided shade and shelter and served as gathering spots for meetings and religious services.

Inside, beeline for the history galleries located in Concourse C (C3, C2, and C1). These galleries spotlight the journey of 3.5 million West Africans who endured the brutal disregard of their humanity and the journey of their descendants. It begins with an elevator ride that functions as a well-curated illusion of time travel. From the bright, open space of the 21st century, visitors descend three levels below ground to the darkness and confinement of the 1400s.

C3 is up first, chronicling the transatlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in history. At one point, the emergence of the high-ceilinged Paradox of Liberty hall appears to ease the tension that the gallery has cultivated, until visitors see a statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of a brick wall with the names of his 600 slaves that reminds them of slavery’s long, dark legacy in the United States.

Next is C2, which centers on racial segregation and Jim Crow laws in 1876-1968 America. This concourse emphasizes the dehumanizing effect of the “seperate but equal” doctrine and the role that the spoken word played in the modern civil rights movement, including a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lastly, C3 highlights the events of a changing America, beginning with the wave of Black movements and music of the 1960s and looking toward the future. The alley of three decades, from the 1980s to the 2000s, leads you toward the end of the history galleries, which amount to 60 percent of the museum.

12 must-see displays in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s history galleries

It would be unfair to rank one exhibit as more important than another since each is a piece of the puzzle that constitutes America. If you have only a few hours at your disposal, though, the following exhibits are a must-see for every visitor who wishes to connect the dots of history, note the remarkable progress, and aspire to go further forward.

1. Set of shackles (C3)

These heavily rusted iron loops joined together by an iron rod have been recovered among many artifacts from the São José shipwreck off the coast of Cape Town.

2. The wall of the domestic slave trade (C3)

As a result of the expansion of cotton cultivation, about “one million people were taken away from their families to vast plantations along the Mississippi River Valley.” Read their testimonies on the wall.

3. Stone slave auction block (C3)

Get a glimpse at this large gray carved marble with a flattened top and bottom, used in Hagerstown, Maryland, during 1830.

4. Silk lace and linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria (C3)

Harriet Tubman escaped slavery as a young woman in the early 1800s but returned to the South again and again to lead other African Americans to freedom.

5. Violin played by the enslaved man Jesse Burke (C3)

The violin belonged to Elijah Burke, owner of the Mount Pleasant Plantation in Phillips County, Arkansas. Before he died in 1860, he gave the violin to one of his enslaved men, Mr. Jesse Burke, who used to entertain the slaveholder and his guests.

6. Cabin from the Point of Pines Plantation in South Carolina (C3)

After emancipation, many African Americans returned to the plantations to find work and moved into the same cabins they occupied during slavery.

7. Interactive lunch counter (C2)

Inspired by college students’ bravery at a segregated Woolworth’s department store eatery, the lunch counter is an installation of interactive touch screens facing a panoramic news footage projection of the fights for equality. Sit on any of the counter stools and explore the menu of movements, from sit-ins to bus boycotts. This intriguing experience puts you in the shoes of freedom fighters. Even if you have to line up for one of the 12 stations, it’s definitely worth your time.

8. Segregated railroad car (C2)

This is one of the largest and most iconic exhibits demonstrating the brutal impacts of segregation under the Jim Crow era. Enter the car to witness the challenges African Americans faced during their travels around the country.

9. Angola Prison Tower (C2)

Sitting on a raised platform is a life-sized steel and concrete tower from one of America’s most brutal prisons.

10. Emmett Till Memorial (C2)

The casket of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was murdered while visiting family in Mississippi in 1955 after whistling at a white woman is “one of our most sacred objects,” said Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the museum’s deputy director. The casket is placed on a pedestal in a separate room, and there’s a bench for those who wish to engage deeply with the significance of the exhibit. The young boy’s murder became a rallying point for the Civil Rights Movement.

11. The Oprah Winfrey Show exhibit (C1)

Oprah Winfrey is the first African American to host a national show, which aired for 25 years. This exhibit is a reproduction of the setting with original furniture and objects.

12. Dress designed by Tracy Reese and worn by Michelle Obama (C1)

Here the tour of the history galleries ends with the election of America’s first Black president. In the foreground of the many magazine covers and other memorabilia from the political campaign is the signature sleeveless black dress with red poppies that the First Lady wore in 2013 on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

The gallery you shouldn’t skip at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The history galleries may occupy the majority of its physical space, but after diving into the past, you’d be remiss to skip the L galleries, which focus on African American community (L3) and culture (L4).

In comparison to the history galleries, the L galleries are bright, airy, and spacious. From the heritage hall, take the escalators to community galleries. In the “Making a Way Out of No Way” exhibits, you’ll see how African Americans have resisted and persisted, thanks to mutual support and through education, religion, entrepreneurship, and activism. Personal success stories are spotlighted here in spite of obstacles and lack of opportunity. Stories include those of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, and photojournalist Charles Harris, whose work now sits in the Carnegie Museum of Art. One room is dedicated to boxer and activist Muhammad Ali whose “stand for his personal, political, and religious convictions changed American history,” as the display reads.

The chronological exploration of African American activism that began in the concourse exhibitions continues here through participation in sports with memorabilia — such as Michael Jordan’s jersey, Joe Louis’s boxing gloves, and Gabby Douglas’s bar grips — and the statues of Venus and Serena Williams. Besides manifesting their physical ability and talent, many athletes used the fields, courts, and rings as a platform for social and political justice and equality.

In the Power of Place room, an interactive multimedia table features personal stories on identity. Migration, displacement, and travel are matters that touch communities globally, and this is a great opportunity to reflect on those. If you are running out of time, but you feel inspired, you can submit your story and images online. If you have time and want to pay respects to the African American soldiers who served in the military from the American Revolution to the War on Terror, visit the Double Victory exhibition on L3.

Next, L4 welcomes you with an impressive multimedia installation named “Cultural Expressions,” which focuses on style, cuisine, creativity, language, and dance. The musical crossroads hall — where you can see Sammy Davis Jr.’s tap shoes, Jimi Hendrix’s vest, and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac — takes you through multiple genres of African American music. The speakers are on blast, and it’s very likely to see visitors moving to the beats of Chuck Berry, 2Pac, or Whitney Houston. You have just joined a party celebrating one of America’s most important cultural exports: music. Visual arts enthusiasts should leave themselves time to visit the dedicated gallery on L4. Paintings, sculptures, and drawings show how artists interpreted the history of their nation from the beginning of the 19th century to contemporary times.

The most underrated exhibitions to check out at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

If you’ve walked through all of the history galleries, you’ve covered more than a mile and centuries of history. As you make your way through, you may notice that the concourse galleries are cramped, and the only seating areas are in the designated “reflections” spaces. This is what makes the Contemplative Court by the exit to the history galleries such a thoughtful addition to Concourse C.

The Contemplative Court is a calm, reflective space and virtual transition from the dark past to the future. The soothing effect of the water that falls powerfully and uninterruptedly from a skylit oculus on the ceiling in the center of the room brings the catharsis you have been looking for after acknowledging your role in history. But at the end of the day, it’s a shared history. A quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the wall across reads, “We are determined to work and fight until justice rains down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The L galleries also have a bonus gallery that should not be overlooked. Visit L2 to explore interactively more stories, images, and objects from the museum’s vast collection. This open space will capture the attention of all ages and is appealing to younger kids.

Before you leave the National Museum of African American History and Culture

While food and drink are prohibited in the galleries, make time for lunch or a snack at the Sweet Home Café opposite the Contemplative Court. You may also want to leave time at the end of your visit to peruse the African American literature in the museum store. (While the store stays open until 5:30 PM, the last entrance is at 5:00 PM.)

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