By Alexandra Piper
I arrived in D.C. a couple of weeks ago as part of Hope’s Washington Honors Semester, excited to tackle the new challenges of living in a city. For those who don’t know me, or have not heard my ramble on about my interests, I am a History and Political Science double major with a focus in African American studies and public history. Museums have always been a passion of mine and I will find any excuse to spend all of my free time in them. Currently, I am an intern in the Office of Programs and Strategic Initiatives and the African Americans Studies program at the National Museum of American History. Much of my time has been spent exploring the museum and the city and I have loved the experience.
This city is also home to something very close to my heart: The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Last summer, I worked as a research intern under Dr. Anna-Lisa Cox, a scholar and author in the field of African American history. I loved every second of the research, and my very own research project stemmed out of the work I did for her. For me, working with African American history is a unique, emotional, and passionate experience, one that is hard to put into words. From the second I stepped foot in the city, I knew I had to visit the museum immediately. Last week, I was able to do a quick walk through the museum on my lunch break, and this is the story of my first visit to the NMAAHC.
The NMAAHC experience starts in an elevator that descends nearly seventy feet below ground. About fifteen of us crammed into the elevator, eyes on each other, dead quiet, and standing completely still as we descended to learn about some of the darkest and forgotten stories of American history. The exhibits have 3 levels: C3 – “Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877,” C2 – “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876 – 1968,” and C1 – “A Changing America” 1968 and Beyond.” The most striking part of the museum for me was the contrast between big and small, both physically and historically. Physically, the museum has large, powerful quotes engraved in the marble walls contrasting the small exhibits and small objects. Historically, they have the iconic artifacts like a Jim Crow railway car, a prison guard tower, Emmett Till’s coffin, and slave chains. The museum also makes a point to highlight the “small” stories, most often parts of African American history that are not taught in the narrative of American history like stories on farmers and daily life. One of the most powerful and forgotten stories for me was the small display on J. Marion Sims’ medical experiments on slave women, most often without anesthesia. I knew about the experiments before visiting, but experiencing it in a tangible way was disturbing and powerful. As a woman, it spoke volumes to me about the transcendent nature of how we view the female body and how these notions have intersected with race.
I walked through the exhibits with tears streaming down my face. Tears still stream down my face as I write this. This is a hard reality. I watched as fellow humans hugged each other during particularly difficult exhibits, like the one on Emmett Till. I watched as parents explained pieces of history to their children. Nobody laughed and nobody smiled. I normally feel a strong connection to history when I visit museums, but in this particular museum I felt an even stronger connection to history, to the people around me, and to all of the people in this country who sacrificed to help others. As difficult as it was to walk through, I am proud to live in a country that works hard to educate people on the darkest parts of history. This is not just African American history, this is American history and it must be remembered and discussed. We must do this.
I walked out of the museum humbled and determined to contribute to educating others on the importance of understanding history. The experience also made me appreciate the presence museums on a deeper level. I have had so many friends tell me that museums are boring, that they only focus on people that are dead, and devote time to events that are irrelevant (fellow historians, I know we have all had at least one friend say this to us). I will say this: history is never irrelevant. My visit to the NMAAHC has pushed me to think harder about how I educate those around me and the ways I can teach others in a compassionate, understanding, and loving way about how we can use lessons of the past to create a better and more humane future. Spread love, even in the hardest times.
If you are planning to visit Washington, D.C., please visit the NMAAHC. Timed passes are available on their website. The lines are long and the crowds are big, but it is completely worth it. It should also be noted that I only had an hour for lunch, so my goal was to quickly walk through the exhibits to see what the museum held. There are upper levels devoted to community and culture galleries that I plan on visiting again. There is no way to fully experience the museum in an hour, or even in one day. If you are unable to visit this museum, consider contributing in a different way: have these difficult conversations with your family and friends, do not shy away from tough issues, and push yourself to be compassionate towards people who face different struggles every day.