American History Through the African American Lens

Washington Monument with NMAAHC Corona Washington Monument with NMAAHC Corona

Janice Ferebee, Docent, National Museum of African American History and Culture (October 2018)

The Smithsonian’s 19th and newest museum, the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), tells the story of American history through the African American lens. One of the most visited museums in the Smithsonian’s portfolio, NMAAHC celebrated its two-year anniversary on September 24, 2018, having welcomed over 4 million diverse visitors from around the world.
A century in the making, NMAAHC’s road to realization was well worth the wait. In 1915, African American veterans from the Union Army gathered in Washington, DC, at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, for a reunion and parade. Upset by the discrimination and racism many faced upon returning from the war, they formed a committee to develop a space to acknowledge African American achievements. Fast forward to September 24, 2016, when NMAAHC opened to the public with fanfare, honor, and jubilation. Built on 5 acres that were part of an 800-acre tobacco plantation owned by Notley Young, the museum is steeped in history, literally, from the ground up!

 Being a docent at this museum means becoming a storyteller/griot. Every object in our museum has a unique and significant story to tell, and we get to share those stories with the 8,000 people (on average) who visit the museum each day. It’s like taking them on a tour through a 400,000 square foot storybook, consisting of 10 floors – 5 above ground (COMMUNITY & CULTURE GALLERIES, and executive offices), and 5 below ground (Concourse & HISTORY GALLERIES). The museum’s 12 inaugural exhibitions focus on broad themes of history, culture and community, made up of about 3,000 pieces (from a 37,000+ piece collection). These exhibitions have been conceived to help transform visitors’ understanding of American history and culture and to help visitors adapt to and participate in changing definitions of American citizenship, liberty and equality.

 

 NMAAHC 1stAnniversary smaller

NMAAHC Docents on "Monumental Staircase" at 1st Anniversary Gathering * September 2017

 

Being a docent at our museum also means engaging visitors in important, timely conversations – including conversations about race, which uniquely correlates to the significance of the building design. In addition to the almost 3,600 ornamental bronze-colored panels that make up the “skin” of the museum, paying homage to intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans in Charleston, SC,

Savannah, GA, and New Orleans, LA, the enveloping lattice also opens the building to exterior daylight, which can be modulated according to the season. The openness to light is symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogue about race and help promote reconciliation and healing. We look forward to the NDS2019 and welcoming docents from around the U.S. and Canada.

 

NMAAHC BuildingSide

Detail of Museum “Skin”

 

We welcome your docent ideas and experiences. Share them by:
--submitting an article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
--joining the National Docents Forum Facebook group, an interactive forum for docents and guides.

Sign Up to Stay Informed
Keep up to date on topics of interest for docents/guides and plans for the next symposium

Join our mailing list!