The time spent inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, will be heavy on your soul no matter your origin, but please don’t shy away from visiting. NMAAHC represents the complexity and suffering of blackness in North America and cherishes the achievements of African Americans, who built the nation with their bare hands.

For generations, African natives and, later on, African Americans have been, to borrow a phrase from one of the galleries, “making a way out of no way.” You will witness the path from slavery to the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter, beholding the thriving culture amid racial oppression.

Museum curators tell us there’s no correct way to see the 12 exhibitions comprised among 3,500 objects and 183 videos, but they advise that it’s difficult to accomplish in one visit. Since we know you may not have an entire three-day weekend to dedicate to the museum, we visited it multiple times to create this guide on how best to navigate 600 years of dense, important history.

Metaphoric architecture

Photo: BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock

The 400,000-square-foot bronze-hued building adjacent to the Washington Monument sets the atmosphere for the historical truth that many have long waited to witness. The establishment of the museum right on the National Mall is also emblematic since The Mall is a platform for America’s democratic values of liberty, equality, and justice.

Award-winning architect David Adjaye designed the three-tiered exterior in the form of a corona, inspired by the Yoruban caryatids, West Africa’s crowned wooden statues. The patterns on the aluminum panels portray the 19th-century ironwork of enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans. They also allow for the daylight to shine through and, at night, for the corona to glow from within.

The perimeter of the grand porch on the south (National Mall) entrance is symbolically bedded out with live oaks, the trees of safety, strength, and resilience. For the enslaved, live oaks provided shade and shelter and served as gathering spots for meetings and religious services.

History galleries: From slavery to the election of America’s first African American president

Upon entering the trio of history galleries, you are embarking on the journey of 3.5 million West Africans who endured the savage disregard of their humanity and the journey of their descendants. Note that some of the more brutal photographs in the history galleries have been curated so that visitors can avoid looking at them head-on.

You are directed in front of the heavy doors of a large elevator, which will open to a glass box when about 30 people gather. Some visitors will look behind at the escalators, puzzled about why they are not in use, but the elevator is a well-curated illusion of time travel. From the light and open space of the 21st century, you will descend three levels below ground to the darkness and confinement of the 1400s.

At the end of this section, we note some must-see items in each concourse.

Concourse 3 (C3)

This area tells the story of how, by the 1600s, West Africa’s centers of learning, military prowess, trade, and unity became the settlements of slave barracks. The sounds of musicians and dancers were silenced by “the rattling of chains, groans, and cries.” There’s much to learn in this first gallery about the transatlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in history.

The startling emergence of the high-ceilinged Paradox of Liberty hall allows for a deep breath and the intuitive release of tension. But the view of Thomas Jefferson’s statue in the foreground of a brick wall with the names of his 600 slaves reminds visitors that there’s still a lot of history left until the 13th Amendment of 1865, which proclaimed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime… shall exist within the United States…”

Concourse 2 (C2)

Walk up the ramp to reach a new mournful era in African American history: that of racial segregation (1876-1968) as enforced by the Jim Crow laws. Concourse 2 showcases the dehumanizing forms that the “separate but equal” doctrine took in public facilities, transportation, education, housing, entertainment, healthcare, work, and the military.

The spoken word played an explicit role in the modern civil rights movement, which has a dedicated room in this gallery. In this room, you can pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership of non-violent protests against the unequal treatment of African Americans, activism, and intelligence helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Concourse 1 (C1)

Climb the second ramp to this concourse to encounter the events of a changing America. In 1968, an unprecedented boom of black movements took place, each displayed on bright orange and mirror plaques. While milling about this pop hall, anticipation for the future is gradually restored under jazz and rock and roll sounds. 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.

Suggested stops in the history galleries in C3, C2, and C1

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 Contemplative Court

If you have walked through all of the history galleries, you have covered more than one mile. Noting that the concourse galleries are very cramped, and the only (and small) seating areas are in the designated “Reflections” spaces, the Contemplative Court is a well-thought addition to the museum’s symbolic and practical achievements. It is a virtual transition from the dark past to the future.

The calming effect of the water that falls powerfully and uninterruptedly from an 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 is 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: African American community and culture

L3 community galleries

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.

There are plenty of personal success stories here to discover in spite of all the 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,” reads the display on yellow background.

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.

L4 culture galleries

This area 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.

L2 Explore More!

If you are not on a time crunch, visit the gallery 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.

Planning your visit

Although the museum opened in 2016, it remains a compelling attraction, so be prepared for large crowds all year. From September to February, you can walk in on weekdays, but weekend visits require a timed-entry pass. Passes for future visits are issued on the first Wednesday of the month; weekends, you can also go online and try for same-day timed passes, which are released at 6:30 AM on Saturday and Sunday.

During the March to August peak season, advance and same-day timed passes are required for entry to the museum before 1:00 PM on weekdays and at any time on weekends. Like all Smithsonian museums, walk-in entry and passes are free of charge. Opening hours are 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM, seven days a week throughout the year except December 25.

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 want to leave time at the end of your visit to peruse the admirable collection of African American literature in the museum store. (While the store stays open until 5:30 PM, the last entrance is at 5:00 PM.)

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.

Discussions and events

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Today, the museum engages in contemporary conversations about black life in America, and in the past years, it has documented and curated items from the Black Lives Matter movement. Kobe Bryant, James LeBron, Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey are among the museum’s big-league donors.

The museum has a busy calendar with discussions, reading sessions, live music, screenings, and workshops. On Monday, January 20, 2020, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is commemorating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrating his great dream for America and the world.