African American life, history, and culture explored in Washington D.C.
The Museum building is African American history and culture writ large on the National Mall of the United States. Its location and its design represent the past, present, and future of the African American experience in ways tangible and symbolic.
Looking north from the building, visitors can see the White House, which made history in 2008 with the election of the country's 44th president, Barack Obama. Rising to the east beyond the National Mall and other Smithsonian museums is the U.S. Capitol, seat of the nation’s legislature. To the south and west are monuments and memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington, whose contributions to African American history and culture are told in the museum.
The Museum's symbolic presence on the National Mall is matched by the symbolism of the building itself. Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, together with their architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, won an international competition in April 2009 to design and deliver the museum to the people of the United States. Groundbreaking on the five-acre site took place in February 2012, with the Museum’s grand opening celebrated on September 24, 2016.
The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, Adjaye grew up as a citizen of the world. He has lived in Egypt, England, Lebanon, and Tanzania and has visited all 54 independent nations of Africa. Freelon is the leading designer for African American museums today. Before his death in February 2009, J. Max Bond Jr. designed African American historic sites, museum, and archives around the world. As a result, the architects have synthesized a variety of distinctive elements from Africa and the Americas into the building’s design and structure.
From one perspective, the building’s architecture follows classical Greco-Roman form in its use of a base and shaft, topped by a capital or corona. For our Museum, the corona is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. Moreover, the building’s main entrance is a welcoming porch, which has architectural roots in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora, especially the American South and Caribbean. Finally, by wrapping the entire building in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, Adjaye pays homage to the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere.
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. From the topmost corona, the view reaches ever upward, reminding visitors the Museum is an inspiration, open to all as a place of meaning, memory, reflection, laughter, and hope. This design is also architecturally practical and sustainable. This building is the first museum on the Mall designed to sustainability standards, serving as the Smithsonian’s 'Green Flag.' In 2018, the museum was officially awarded LEED Gold Certification.
Visit our GreenScreen dashboard to learn more about the main sustainable features incorporated in the design, construction, and operation of the Museum as part of our commitment to educate visitors and be a leader in social responsibility.
Many of the world’s great buildings have integrated their architectural form with their function or purpose. The Museum follows this principle in the sense the building embraces its content—the American story told through the lens of African American history and culture. Fulfilling a decades-long dream, the Museum building is a community resource that helps visitors learn about themselves, their histories, and their common cultures. The light reflected from the bronze-colored lattice serves as a beacon that reminds us of what we were, what challenges we still face, and what we may hope to become. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Museum's founding director has described it, “this building will sing for all of us.”
This building will sing for all of us. Lonnie G. Bunch Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture