National Museum of African American History and Culture


The opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which featured a dedication by President Obama, was named “Cultural Event of the Year” by the New York Times. Located adjacent to the Washington Monument, the museum houses exhibit galleries, administrative spaces, theatre space and collections storage space.

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  • The parameters set by the NMAAHC Council included a number of unique requirements related to the building’s atmosphere and components. The brief called for five stories above ground and three stories below ground. In addition to meeting a series of security standards reflecting the location of the building in a central part of the capital, the architects’ design had to meet LEED Gold certification standards. Regarding the building’s atmosphere and feel, the Smithsonian wanted a structure that respected the visage of the neighboring Washington Monument, but also sat firmly within the domain of the urban rather than the monumental.

  • The design emerged from an in-depth consideration of the location. As part of the Washington Monument Grounds, the site forms part of the National Mall, ‘the nation’s front yard’. NMAAHC rethinks the role of civic institutions in the 21st century, offering new modes of user experience and engagement. It presents a new form of museum: one that prioritizes cultural narrative and identity and gives form to untold stories to establish an empowering emotional context for positive social change. As such, it operates simultaneously as a museum, a memorial and a space for cross-cultural collaboration and learning.

  • The museum speaks about the identity of a marginalized group that has played, and continues to play, a significant role in the United States. As NMAAHC’s director Lonnie Bunch said, “David talked a lot about not being an American, but having an African root, and recognizing how important this story was for everyone. He had really immersed himself in African-American history. He could see this project for what I wanted it to be, which was not just a museum for black people but a museum to help people of one culture understand the experience of people of a different culture.”

  • The NMAAHC maintains a subtle profile in the landscape – more than half is below ground – with five stories above. The corona is based on elements of the Washington Monument, closely matching the 17-degree angle of the capstone and the panel size and pattern has been developed using the Monument stones as a reference. The entire building is wrapped in an ornamental bronze lattice that is a historical reference to African American craftsmanship. The density of the pattern can be modulated to control the amount of sunlight and transparency into the interior. The south entry is composed of the Porch and a central water feature. An extension of the building out into the landscape, the porch creates an outdoor room that bridges the gap between the interior and exterior. At 50m (49’-2”) deep, the setback is similar to other buildings on the north side of the Mall. The underside of the porch roof is tilted upward allowing reflection of the moving water below. This covered area creates a microclimate where breezes combine with the cooling waters to generate a place of refuge from the hot summer sun.