Phil Freelon and the Creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Leah L. Jones / National Museum of African American History and Culture

In 2009 architect Phil Freelon (1953 - 2019) and his team won the international competition to design the newest addition to the National Mall, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). After its completion in 2016, NMAAHC became the largest African American centered museum in the country, its daring cast aluminum panel exterior standing in stark contrast to neighbors sporting white-marble and granite facades. During the opening ceremony in September of 2016 the building was honored with a speech from President Barack Obama who stressed the importance of sharing and honoring the African American experience. 

President Barack Obama's remarks at the dedication and grand opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016.

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In observance of the 5th Anniversary of the NMAAHC, on September 24th, we’re discussing one of the architects behind the design of our museum. As the nation’s largest cultural destination dedicated to exploring the African American story, every element of the museum’s architecture was designed to speak to its historic significance. The many emblematic design choices of NMAAHC are a direct result of the thoughtful planning of the architectural team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, with Phil Freelon of the Freelon Group serving as the museum’s architect of record.

The Architect

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa, Freelon, graduated from North Carolina State University's College of Design with a Bachelor of Environmental Design in Architecture in 1975 and earned his Master of Architecture degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) two years later. During his lifetime, Freelon established a reputation for designing public spaces and cultural institutions. Some of his highlighted projects include the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, and the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco. Freelon’s award winning designs catapulted him to prominence in the industry, earning him the distinction of Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 2003.

Brochure announcing the partnership Freelon/Bond Architects (2006)

Brochure announcing the partnership Freelon/Bond Architects (2006)

National Museum of African American History and Culture

When President George W. Bush first established a commission in 2001 to create a new museum on The Mall, Freelon wanted to enter his company, The Freelon Group, to participate in the design competition. Freelon would partner with famed African American New York City architect, J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935 - 2009), and by 2006 the two officially formed the Freelon Bond group. A year later, the Freelon Bond group submitted their proposal and soon after was selected to create programming and pre-design work for the museum. When the official design competition for the museum was announced, UK based architect David Adjaye joined the team as the lead designer, and along with the partnering firm SmithGroup, the new architectural team became Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. The three Black architects combined a variety of distinctive elements from Africa and the Americas to create the building’s unique, historically significant design. As the architect of record, Freelon and his firm were responsible for ensuring that key design ideas were upheld and they were active as on-site project managers during the museum’s construction process to certify that the building would be developed according to plan. 

The Design

Freelon, Adjaye, and Bond were tasked with taking the pain, triumph, and perserverance of the African American experience and forming it into a structure. The team looked to African sources, such as Yoruban architecture, for inspiration. They sought to connect the building’s design to the geographic and cultural roots of African Americans, as many descend from West and Central Africa. Their choice to envelop the building in bronze-colored lattice work also references the contributions of enslaved and free Black metalworkers in the American South. Their goal was to make the museum an extension of its contents, and an expression of the stories told inside.  

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. (left) and the Washington Monument (right)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. (left) and the Washington Monument (right)

Alan Karchmer / National Museum of African American History and Culture

The African American story is the quintessential American story, even though it was about a forced migration, America is about opportunity for people from other places. You’ll find the best and worst of what the American story is in the African American story.

Phil Freelon Architect

Initial inspiration for the museum was taken from the surrounding structures on the National Mall, specifically the towering Washington monument directly adjacent to NMAAHC. For example, the angle of the three-tiered Corona that makes up the top of the museum is the inverted equivalent to the capstone on the Washington monument. With its distinctive design elements—from its welcoming porch to its see-through filigree panels—the museum embraces architectural features found across the African Diaspora.

Phil Freelon during at the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Leah L. Jones / National Museum of African American History and Culture

Passing and Legacy

On July 9, 2019, Freelon passed away in Durham, North Carolina at the age of 66. His legacy lives on in the numerous public spaces around the country he helped to create and the students he mentored. His work also extends well beyond the field of architecture to include fine art photography, which has been exhibited widely in art galleries and museums.
 

His work brought to the National Mall a bold, new statement of elegance and dignity … Phil Freelon will forever have a permanent place in the story of this museum.

Lonnie G. Bunch Smithsonian Institution Secretary and Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

In 2017, the NMAAHC acquired the Philip G. Freelon Archive, a collection of documents, ephemera, photographs, and artifacts about his life and career.  Included in the collection are original sketches by Freelon; design proposals for major projects; an identification card from his days as an architecture student at MIT; and other professional and personal memorabilia. A portion of the collection was displayed at the museum in the 2018 installation “Recent Acquisitions: Architects’ Archives.”

Visit our Building a Better Future Collection Story to learn more about Phil Freelon and other prominent African American architects who helped build a more inclusive world inside and outside of their industry. 

Written by Intern Ronald Jorgenson, Museum Archivist Ja-Zette Marshburn, Museum Curator Michelle Joan Wilkinson, and Web Content Editor Ryan Hunter.

  • National Center for Civil and Human Rights
    National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Ga (John Greim/LightRocket/Getty Images)
  • Reginald F Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture
    Reginald F Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore, Md (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
  • Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco, Ca (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)