Right up there in difficulty with trying to get tickets to the Broadway show Hamilton is trying to get tickets to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Right now, if you’re looking to get guaranteed tickets the next opening is not until October.
But, if you are a living, breathing human being no matter your race but especially if you are of African descent, visiting this museum is A MUST. I encourage everyone to prioritize taking a trip to visit this museum, bring your man, your mom, your aunties and cousins – everyone should go.
My husband and I got tickets from a friend of his who at the last minute couldn’t go. So, it wasn’t in our plans (or budget) to go to DC but, we knew we couldn’t miss this opportunity and booked bus tickets for the 4 hour ride.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Ready to brave the long lines and 90 degree heat to get into the museum
Each ticket (timed pass) has a time slot for when you will be allowed to enter the museum. The museum doesn’t officially open until 10am but we arrived about 45 minutes before opening and we were shocked to already see a line straight out to the street. We joined the line and waited for our turn BUT they weren’t strict on checking our time slot and they let us in an hour before we were scheduled. Yay for more time to explore and more importantly air conditioning!
TIP: Check the weather before you go. You may have to wait outside for a long time so, bring whatever you need to stay cool/warm/dry – depending on the weather.
EXPLORING THE MUSEUM
There is so much to see that you really need at least 2 full days to absorb it all, but you’re only going to have at most 7 ½ hours so you must have a plan of attack to get it all in. Here’s what I recommend…
A striking image of a black soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War featured in the C3 level of the History Galleries
You want to start in the History Galleries and work your way in chronological order through history, so to do that head down towards level C3 and the guides will give you instructions on how to work your way up through the Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877 Exhibit (level C3) to the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876 – 1968 Exhibit (level C2) and lastly to level the A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond (level C1) exhibit.
TIP: Get familiar with the map of the museum ahead of time. Click here to see it on the website. You can also pick one up at the information desk but you don’t want to waste a second if you don’t have to.
THE EMMETT TILL MEMORIAL EXHIBIT
Make sure you see the Emmett Till exhibit located on level C2, the line will likely be very long, we waited about an hour to get in but it is a MUST SEE.
The exhibit is set up like you are walking into his funeral and you will be able to see the actual casket that he was buried in. If you are able to see inside the casket (it is set high up off the ground and I was too short to see inside) there lies the iconic image of his face after it had been beaten and viciously tortured. You get to have an experience that is similar although no way near as traumatic as the one his mother bravely chose when she elected to have an open casket for her son Emmett’s funeral. This ultimately became a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
The first two levels (C3 and C2) are heavy. Heavy as in emotional and heavy as in there is so much content to absorb. So, please don’t rush through them, you should spend a bulk of your time on these floors.
Each exhibit has been very thoughtfully curated as it first explores the African continent before the slaves were kidnapped and the arduous journey through the middle passage before finally meeting their fate in America.
The mood in air on these floors is tense and sensitive for obvious reasons but there is a unspoken camaraderie and respect between everyone as we move through each exhibit.
Madame C.J. Walker piece the first self-made woman millionaire
The last level (C1) in the History Galleries contains the most recent history from 1968 ending with the election of President Obama. I was a bit overwhelmed with the way it was set up, the images and memorabilia are jam packed from the floor to the ceiling.
The first room in the exhibit in the A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond exhibit
But after the intensity of the first two floors, this floor contains much lighter subjects, like music, television and movies, they even have pieces from the set of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Even topics that could (and should) have been more thoroughly covered were only lightly touched on – like origins of hip hop, the crack era and the war on drugs.
BLINK AND YOU’LL MISS THIS
If you’re not careful, once you worked your way through all the exhibits and you’re about to exit the History Galleries you might miss the somewhat hidden entrance to the Contemplative Court. The entrance will be on your right hand side as you are walking up the last ramp to leave.
The beautiful water feature that rains down in the middle of the Contemplative Court
It’s a beautiful and relaxing space for you to take a breath and allow you to marinate on everything you’ve seen and experienced. Not to mention you can sit and rest your feet. The impressive water feature in the middle of the room is almost hypnotic. I highly recommend taking a few minutes to check it out.
THE SWEET HOME CAFÉ
You can’t bring food or drink inside the museum so likely you are going to need to make a stop at the Sweet Home Café to grab something to eat. The café is set up like a food court with different options to choose from like traditional southern, BBQ , there’s even a fish fry section and an entire table with desserts.
The best food hands down was the shrimp and grits. It was flavorful, the shrimp was big, juicy and perfectly cooked. Now, the texture of the grits was a little soupy but the flavor was so on point, I was able to overlook that.
The shrimp and grits looks a mess but it tastes so good
As for the other items at the cafe well, just don’t expect for it to taste as good as grandmas’ home cooking or to be affordable – just close your eyes when it’s time to pay the bill, trust me you’ll need the fuel to get you through the entire museum.
TIP: Wear your most comfortable shoes. Forget about looking cute, there is a lot to get through and you don’t want to waste a lot of time sitting because your feet are hurting.
THERE’S LEVELS TO THIS
After taking your time through all of the lower levels of the History Galleries, it’s time to speed it up to make it through the remaining three levels (L2-L4). BUT that’s ok, because in my opinion the remaining levels aren’t half as good as the History Galleries. There are some duplicate pieces and it just doesn’t look as carefully put together as the lower floors.
If you are a music lover, I recommend going first to the top to level (L4) to the Musical Crossroads exhibit where you’ll see costumes, instruments and other artifacts from the legends of Gospel, Blues, Rock n Roll, R&B and Hip Hop. There is even a section that is set up like a record store where you can actually select music to play. I’m a music lover so this was my favorite section of the upper levels.
George Clinton’s Mothership
If you are a musical/stage/dance lover start at level L4 and keep to your right to the Taking the Stage exhibit. It is an amazing and colorful exhibit filled with costumes and pieces from musicals like The Wiz and even the iconic Alvin Ailey Dance company.
If you are a sports fan head for level L3 to see an exhibit packed with sports memorabilia from all of the sports greats from boxing to tennis to basketball and more.
TIP: Be aware that the gift shop line closes earlier than the museum itself, so get there early if you’re looking to make a purchase.
There are more exhibits to see in the upper levels but everything that I have highlighted in my opinion is the best parts of the museum. So trust me when I say find exhibits that interests you and take your time going through them without rushing to try to see everything. I promise that you won’t regret the time spent.
Question: If you’ve already been to the museum, what are your thoughts on it? And if you haven’t been, do you have plans to visit?
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