“The trip to the museum was a humbling experience. I felt the weight of the collective experience of my ancestors—their trials and tribulations, and their sadness and joy.” This powerful quote was one of many from students after our recent class visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It underscores why anyone teaching history should take their students to this museum as soon as possible. After decades of preparation, the NMAAHC opened its doors to tremendous fanfare on September 24, 2016. Arguably the most important museum to open in this country in more than a decade, the NMAAHC faces an unusual yet enviable dilemma for a museum: more people want to visit than it can currently accommodate. Over one million guests have already visited the museum. As Director Lonnie Bunch recently explained, the museum was designed for 4,000 visitors per day—but it is currently receiving 8,000 visitors per day.1
Taking students to the museum is a rewarding experience. Yet, it also comes with some challenges. It is more crowded and harder to get into than almost any other museum in the country. The line just to enter the historical galleries seems more like something one would encounter at Disney World rather than at a history museum. Also, the museum is massive—too large for guests to absorb fully in even a three-hour visit.
That said, any instructor will find that visiting the NMAAHC is a deeply meaningful experience for students that can elevate a good class into one that’s unforgettable. A bit of strategic logistical and pedagogical planning are necessary to pull off a student trip to this marvelous museum.
To start, if you are even considering taking students to the museum in the next year, keep a very close eye on the timed passes page, which offers directions for group passes to the museum. Unfortunately, group reservations are currently suspended due to a severe backlog of requests. But at some point in the near future, group tickets will be re-issued. If you’re even considering taking a group to the museum, determine your dates in advance and once the group ticketing re-opens, make your reservation even if you haven’t secured funding yet. You can always cancel tickets if the funding falls through. If the museum resumes the group reservation process it had until recently, you’ll need to call a number at E-Tix and possibly spend an hour or more waiting to speak with a representative to request your dates.
Another important consideration is how to prepare your students for this visit. Think about making this trip not only a museum visit, but also a larger exploration on the question of how to make our public history institutions more accessible and racially equitable. Learning about the decades of work staffers put into opening the NMAAHC gives students an important lesson on how museums—especially African-American history museums—do not appear magically, but are the product of years of struggle by public historians, activists, community members, elected officials, and scholars. Students may also benefit to learn about the long history of the Black museum movement, which predated the NMAAHC by decades, or concerted efforts by conservatives such as Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina to block the establishment of a Smithsonian museum devoted to African American history.
Prior to visiting, you should develop a plan of what you want students to see at the museum. The museum does not offer guided tours. The size and scale of the NMAAHC—over 85,000 square feet of exhibition space—means that instructors must make hard choices about where to focus. Unless you are planning multiple days of visiting, it is nearly impossible to carefully read and digest all the museum’s exhibits. Rather, it is wise to go to the museum with an idea of which galleries you want your students to focus on.
Instructors will likely want students to skim some sections and explore others more carefully, or even to skip entire exhibits. The three history galleries alone—“Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877,” “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom 1876-1968,” and “A Changing America 1968 and Beyond”—would easily take a day to peruse carefully. But if you limit yourself to a couple of hours in those galleries, students should still have energy to explore the wonderful exhibits on the museum’s third floor on African Americans’ experiences with sports and the military, or the fourth floor’s popular galleries on music, art, and cultural expression.
For my class on African American history since 1865, for example, I had students walk quickly through the pre-1865 gallery so that we could focus more carefully on the 1876-1968 and the post-1968 galleries. For a pre-1865 course, I would have students do the opposite. After making our way through those two galleries, I gave students the option to explore the third and fourth floors on their own. I recommend this hybrid approach that avoids the extremes of either guiding your students’ every move in the exhibits or letting your students loose for the whole visit in this cavernous, and potentially overwhelming, museum. Because this experience can be quite emotional for many students, it is important to give them some time and space to navigate the museum individually or in small groups.
Instructors may want to visit the NMAAHC on their own time prior to the class visit. Just becoming familiar with the layout of the NMAAHC will make it much easier to lead a group of students through the museum. I suggest avoiding weekends and holidays if possible. The museum is still quite busy on weekdays, but less likely to overwhelm students than on weekends, when attendance swells considerably.
A word on food: the museum’s Sweet Home Café serves delicious African American dishes from four regions of the U.S., but a meal and a beverage for one person can easily cost more than $20. If your budget is tight, you may want to have your group eat a meal prior to your visit. This may seem like a trivial detail, but the last thing you want is to bring students to this remarkable museum and have them distracted and complaining about their empty stomachs.
Most importantly, remember to let your students have a good time. I recommend resisting the urge to give your group the “total experience” at the NMAAHC. It is difficult for visitors not to have a memorable time here, but students will most likely have a positive experience if they do not feel too rushed and are allowed to explore some exhibits in depth—even if it means missing other exhibits. With a bit of prior planning and pedagogical forethought, you are bound to ensure your students have a powerful and meaningful experience at the NMAAHC.
- Lonnie Bunch III, “African American History, Art, and the Public Museum: A Conversation with Lonnie Bunch and Richard Powell,” Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, New Orleans, April 7, 2017. ↩