Immerse yourself in the comprehensive Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Learn about the horrific era of slavery. Be inspired by the courageous individuals who fought, and continue to fight, against prejudice. See artifacts from the past and present representing the impact of African American leaders in the United States in the fields of politics, sports, television, medicine, music, and more.
Use this guide to plan your experience in order to make sure you see these featured highlights. Try to spend a full day at this fascinating museum to see more historic and cultural artifacts of African American history and culture from the early 15th Century through the present. Website links and ticket information are included at the end of this article. Listen to an accompanying podcast by clicking on the audio bar at the bottom of this post for even more information.
Enter the museum from Constitution Avenue or from the National Mall. You will be on the Heritage Level.
Slavery and Freedom – 1400s through 1800s – Level C3
For the best experience, begin your visit by descending from Heritage Hall to the Concourse Level via the escalators. Then, get in the line to descend on a large elevator to the lowest level, Level C3, in the basement to begin a historical experience of African American history. As you are escorted into the elevator, most likely with a large crowd, it feels like you really are going back in time as the years from present-day going backward to the 1400’s are actually written on walls that scroll by as you look out glass windows of the elevator.
When you exit the elevator, walk through history from the 15th century to the late 1800’s as you learn about the transatlantic slave trade from Africa. The displays are informative and many of them are disturbing. For example, there are slave shackles on display that were actually used to bind a slave’s feet. Prepare children in advance as you help them understand the horrors of slavery.
Colonial America displays focus on the paradox of fighting for freedom for some, but not for all, in the founding and early years of the United States. Be sure to see famous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner’s Bible dating to about 1830 in this section.
Civil War and Emancipation exhibits have some fascinating artifacts. Look for Harriet Tubman’s silk lace and linen shawl that was given to her by Queen Victoria around 1897. Harriet Tubman was an escaped slave who helped lead thousands of African Americans to freedom in the Underground Railroad as she returned to the south and led other slaves to freedom in the northern United States in the 1860’s.
Follow the exhibits past an actual slave cabin. Continue walking through time, passing Civil War and then Emancipation artifacts.
Segregation – 1876 – 1968 – Level C2
Even after the Civil War and Emancipation, there was still segregation for African Americans in the United States. Walk up the ramp to reach the level that contains displays about segregation. As you walk up, look above you at the Spirit of Tuskegee biplane.
Prior to World War II, many in the military believed that African Americans would not perform well in combat and were incapable of flying, but a group of African American pilots fought for the right to fly. The “Tuskegee Airmen” went on to achieve some of the best military records in World War II! The “Spirit of Tuskegee” biplane was used to train many of the original Tuskegee pilots.
The long fight against segregation and prejudice is further elaborated with the Jim Crow exhibit. Also on this floor, there is an actual rail car with segregated sections that clearly displays the inequity of segregation.
Be sure to see the stool from the Greensboro Lunch Counter, where African American young men staged a four-month sit-in protest in 1960 as they demanded the elimination of segregation. Sit at the nearby replica of a lunch counter and interact with some of the technology to learn more about segregation and the struggle for equal rights.
Continue walking past the lunch counter and the prison guard tower to the back left corner of the room to reach the Emmett Till Memorial. There are no pictures allowed in this solemn room where you will see the original coffin of the 14-year-old boy who was killed in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white woman.
Walk back toward the Greensboro Lunch Counter, but enter the room to your right before you reach the counter. This room contains many items representing the modern civil rights movement, including a dress that Rosa Parks was making shortly before her arrest in 1955 for not giving up her seat to move to the back of a segregated bus.
A Changing America – 1968 and Beyond – Level C1
Walk back to the end of the museum with the Spirit of Tuskegee above, and walk up the ramp to Level C1, A Changing America, 1968 and Beyond. This floor features the time from the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. through the second election of United States President Barack Obama.
The exhibit honoring President Obama on Level C1 contains a signed copy of the President Obama’s remarks in 2013 on the 50thAnniversary of the March on Washington. First Lady Michelle Obama wore the dress in the exhibit in connection with the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, as well.
Be sure to see the set from Oprah Winfrey’s television show, Oprah!, with her beautiful pink dress on display there, too. Oprah Winfrey is a member of the museum’s advisory council and has provided substantial support for the museum.
Walk up the ramp to the Concourse Level. On the left, as you exit the ramp, behind the Grand Staircase, there is a theatre named for Oprah Winfrey. Further to the left, there is an excellent dining option, The Sweet Home Café. Check out the menu and details at the end of this post.
Take a few minutes when you reach the Concourse Level to visit the peaceful Contemplative Court. Water flows down from a ceiling fountain as you walk around or sit on benches in the quiet room.
According to the museum’s website, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is built upon four pillars. One of these pillars is that the museum “explores what it means to be an American and shares how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture.” This might be a good time to reflect on this pillar as you think back on all that you have seen in the three history levels that you have visited. Read more about the pillars and the goals of the museum on the “About” page of the official museum website here:
After spending some time at the Contemplative Court, and perhaps enjoying lunch, make your way to the floors above the Heritage Hall level where you entered the museum. Don’t miss the top floor, Culture Galleries, on Level L4, and Community Galleries on Level L3.
Culture Galleries – Level L4
Culture Galleries is the top level of the building. This level includes Visual Arts, Music, Cultural Expressions, and Stage exhibits.
When you enter the Culture Galleries on Level 4, walk through the round exhibition to see Chuck Berry’s bright red Cadillac at the entrance to the Musical Crossroads exhibit. The 1973 Cadillac Eldorado was owned and driven by Chuck Berry (1926-2017).
The Musical Crossroads exhibit highlights African American music from the arrival of the first Africans in America until present day. Look for Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Chuck Berry’s guitar, too.
Also on L4, be sure to see the Taking the Stage exhibit. Artifacts, historical images, and media presentations highlight the successes of African Americans in theater, film and television.
Community Galleries – Level L3
Take the escalator down one floor to the Community Galleries. The Double Victory section features the military service of African Americans from the American Revolution through the War on Terror.
Dr. Ben Carson’s lab coat is on display in the Ben Carson exhibit. Look for the model of the joined brains of twins that the famous neurosurgeon, now United States Cabinet Secretary, successfully separated.
Another highlight of Level 3 is the Sports: Leveling the Playing Field section. See Tiger Woods’ shirt he was wearing the first time he won the Masters Golf Tournament.
Look for Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves and robe. View an exhibit honoring Michael Jordan. See Jackie Robinson’s baseball jersey, too!
Explore More! – Level L2
If you have time, check out the Explore More exhibits on Level L2 exhibits are dedicated to helping visitors connect and engage with African American history and culture. The floor features an interactive, multifaceted educational space. “Transitions in Freedom” is an interactive display that traces the histories of African American families from slavery to freedom through records from the Freedmen’s Bureau and other documents and historical artifacts. Visitors can also search genealogical databases.
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Building
The building is a work of art in itself. Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, with their architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, won a competition to design and build the museum. According to the museum website, Adjaye is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat who has visited all 54 independent nations of Africa, Freelon is a leading designer for African American museums, and J. Max Bond Jr., who died in 2009, designed African American historic sites, museum, and archives around the world. The building is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in West African Yoruban art. The entire building is wrapped in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice.
With this effect, Adjaye pays homage to the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans in the American south. Learn more about the building here:
National Museum of African American History and Culture Website
The museum has an excellent website with details of additional highlights of the permanent collection and information about special temporary exhibitions. Access the official museum website here:
The Museum of African American History and Culture is open daily from 10 am until 5:30 pm, except Christmas Day.
The extremely popular museum is free to visit, but it requires timed tickets for admission for everyone, even infants. The best way to guarantee admission to the museum is to get online tickets three months in advance. Tickets are usually available on the first Wednesday of the month 90 days in advance for three months in the future. Tickets go quickly as soon as they are released. All summer 2018 passes are “sold out”. The next release is for September 2018 passes. These tickets will be available on Wednesday, June 6th at 9 a.m. ET. You may obtain up to six (6) advance passes per order at the following official website:
There are three other possible ways to get tickets.
(1) Same-day online: You can look online daily beginning at 6:30 a.m. and claim up to four passes for the same day. Passes are available until they run out.
(2) Walk-ups: During the week, a limited number of walk-up passes at one per person are available starting at 1 p.m. They’re given out on the Madison Drive side of the museum. Because weekends are so popular, walk-up passes aren’t available for Saturdays or Sundays.
(3) All Wednesdays in May 2018 are Walkup Wednesdays. Individuals who walk up without timed entry passes may enter the museum on a first-come first-served basis, subject to building capacity. Try arriving after 1 pm for the best chance of getting inside. This worked well in April when this program first began.
Note: Passes that are not obtained by walking up to the museum or online via ETIX for the African American museum may be counterfeit. You won’t be admitted prior to the time on your pass, but if you’re late getting to the museum and miss the time on the pass, you can go later that same day. If the museum is already at capacity, you’ll have to wait until room is available.
Special Admission for Veterans, Active Duty Personnel and First Responders – from the museum website Question and Answer section:
Question-“I’m a veteran, active duty personnel or first responder, do I still need a timed pass to enter the museum?
Answer-We are honored to welcome veterans, active duty personnel and first responders to the museum. After showing their military, work ID or badge, veterans, active duty personnel and first responders may enter the museum and bring one guest with them for their visit. Entry into the museum is always subject to building capacity. If the museum is at or nearing capacity, then all visitors, including veterans, active duty personnel and first responders, will be asked to wait until the museum has room to accommodate new visitors. Weekends and holidays are peak visitation times.”
Dining at Sweet Home Café
The excellent, reasonably priced Sweet Home Café is open from 10 am until 5 pm for museum visitors. Lunch is served in the huge restaurant from 11 am until 3 pm, and some selections are offered outside of lunch hours. Menu items feature Southern, Creole and comfort food options. These include buttermilk fried chicken, shrimp and grits, catfish, and a beef brisket sandwich. Desserts include bread pudding, Key Lime cupcakes, pecan pie, and pumpkin pie.
Link to Museum of African American History and Culture – Sweet Home Café menu and information:
The popular Museum Store is open daily from 10 am until 5:30 pm. It is located in Heritage Hall near the main entrance. It offers souvenirs, jewelry, books, toys, games, and stationery. Specialty items include African American dolls, a Gullah Gourmet section, and Kwanzaa gifts.
Museum of African American History and Culture – Location
The Museum of African American History and Culture is located on the National Mall at 1400 Constitution Avenue NW, near the Washington Monument, between Madison Drive and Constitution Avenue and between 14th and 15th Streets. The nearest Metro stations are the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle Stations. The museum has no parking, but there are a few, expensive privately owned parking lots within walking distance with parking available for the general public.
National African American Museum of History and Culture Interior Map
This official map of the interior of the museum with locations of exhibits and services may be helpful to you as you visit:
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is a standout, even in a city of the world’s best museums. It is emotional, historic, educational, and entertaining. I was unable to obtain advance passes, so I visited on a Walkup Wednesday when they first piloted this ticket option in April 2018. I want to go back when I have more time to spend viewing the exhibits. All visitors to Washington, D.C. should try to visit. It is definitely worth getting tickets in advance and planning a trip to Washington, D.C. around the date you are able to get tickets to this fascinating museum!
If you are interested in my other Washington, D.C. posts and podcasts, check them out here:
Remember to click on the audio bar below to hear the accompanying podcast for even more of my personal reflections. Until next time, I hope all of your travel days are just perfect!
Podcast: One Perfect Day in Travel