New Smithsonian museum creates moving statement

Craig Wilkins
Special to The Detroit News

“We didn’t bring you here to work. We brought you here to be moved.” With that announcement, three Smithsonian officials opened a presentation on its new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Taking center stage in the newly minted Oprah Winfrey Hall a week before the museum’s highly anticipated public opening, specialist LaFleur Paysour, secretary David J. Skorton and founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III welcomed the 400 visitors granted the opportunity to explore the 19th and newest member of the Smithsonian family before its official opening on Saturday.

As I began my journey through centuries of black performance on the world stage, Paysour’s words echoed in my ears and mind. We — the lucky few invited to this early engagement with the museum’s displays and artifacts — were there to be moved. A gracious offer to be sure, yet hardly necessary. I have been watching the developments of this century-plus Herculean effort for the past two decades. I was moved long before this moment to understand the importance of this museum and its design, moved to become a charter member and compelled to be on hand for its opening.

As an African-American who also happens to be an architect, I understand the potential for architecture to move people more deeply than most. And this was potential on the grandest scale.

Architecture, at its best, is suppose to touch you, to move you. The subject’s will to form is also the will to inform as well; the motivation to build something, is at its base, the desire to say something.

Yet design is often a difficult language to decipher. This is intentional. Beliefs of what constitutes the proper aesthetic forms of architecture are often fraught with accusations of privileging a particular cultural and political preference (frequently read as white, male, heterosexual, Western) under the guise of universal aesthetic standards. Such debates over meaning, merit and value are made all the clearer in public works such as museums, but are especially heightened when such works are placed alongside the iconic images that shape our national identity. The nation’s Capitol, the Washington and Lincoln monuments, the White House; these structures are expressions, markers, entries in a journal about our society — its past, present and hopes for the future.

Because much has already been written about the form of the building, I’ll not recount it at length here. In short, the design by F.A.B. — an unprecedented collaboration between architects of color Philip Freelon, David Adjaye, the late J. Max Bond, as well as the Michigan-based SmithGroup — can be described as a simple box upon which a network of delicate, intricately patterned panels are hung, the inspiration for which is drawn from the ironwork of enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina.

The overall effect of the bronze-like panels — angled at 17 1/2 degrees to match the cap of the nearby Washington Memorial — recalls either a Yoruba crown or the corona of a caryatid, the Yoruban architectural equivalent of a tripartite column; as if one is necessarily exclusive of the other. The crown/corona sits regally upon a broad, extended base, or “porch,” which encourages visitors to engage the building, landscape and each other in a manner befitting a late afternoon respite from an overly enthusiastic Southern sun. In ways both big and small, the building adopts and privileges specific, cultural symbols of past (crown/corona) and present (porch, iron work) experiences of the Diaspora in taking its place among the icons of American identity along the nation’s front yard. In color, texture, appearance and dare I say, attitude, it is like no other structure on the National Mall.

Which begs the question: Why? What does it mean to deploy such iconography for presentation and reflection upon the nation’s most significant spatial stage? Occurring 150 years after the Civil War failed to clearly define what it means to be American, what constitutes the proper form of a truly “American” museum is an especially important question for this nation’s citizens to consider. What do the design choices of F.A.B. say about whom and what is American? In short, to what end is the architecture attempting to move a nation?

I’m reminded of the National Memorial Association’s effort to construct what was then referred to as the Negro Memorial Building almost a century ago. Led by two Washingtonians, seamstress Julia West Hamilton and then-U.S. Treasury clerk Ferdinand Desoto Lee, the group commissioned the Harlem architect Edward Ross Williams to create a structure befitting the association’s quest shortly after organizing in 1915. Embracing architecture’s innate ability to communicate across cultures, through the power of design alone Williams, also a person of color, set out to move a reluctant nation to fully embrace its citizens of color as equals. Completed around 1924 and currently on display upon the walls of this museum, his proposal appears lifted, albeit skillfully, straight from antiquity.

From head to foot, side-to-side; in form, detail, and material, there’s nothing about Williams’ design that references anything other than ancient Athens and Rome. It isn’t too difficult to imagine his argument to Americans at the time: “We, as a people, fit; we belong; we are, in a sense, just like you.” Williams’ intent — supported and presented to Congress by the association — was to illustrate black Americans were indeed Americans, maybe even more so than they were black. But just months after President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill authorizing its construction, the stock market crash of 1929 made the entire question moot. It has taken another 75 years and the work of thousands for the museum to find its way again into the public conversation.

Both culturally and architecturally, that three-quarter century gap is significant. Black America has markedly evolved. Today, people of color — if not the nation itself — are more willing, if not longing, to accept our particular way of being. Reluctant nation be damned, “I’m gonna be me” is in a sense, a central theme of our journey in this land: the right to simply be we, boldly, on our terms, in our words. That has always been a dangerous claim.

Moreover, if you stay woke, you’ll know it still is. Such a claim is often portrayed as a rejection of common American beliefs and values. Yet in truth, it’s not that at all. It’s an acceptance of who we are, our uniqueness and the knowledge that yes; in that uniqueness we, too, are America. We don’t have to choose; to shed one identity for the other. This is what black America rejects, this false choice; and it’s this mix of defiance, acceptance and celebration that sits at the heart of this museum.

It’s not a coincidence that at night it glows as if on fire; an eternal flame of a people who’ve substantially overpaid not just to be at this moment, or even in this place, but simply to be at all. In a most particular way, the journey to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the journey of a people; an emphatic response to Langston Hughes’ famous poetic query, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

At its core, the new museum is essentially about that dream: how contagious it can be, how stubbornly fragile it remains and how deep its roots can run. It extends the understanding of the African-American, as well as our collective American experience in a country optimistic enough about its future to have elected its first African-American president yet still deeply conflicted about its racial past and present. The museum begins its effort to move a nation to the celebration it holds behind its complex, filigreed walls by staking permanent claim to its rightful place on the nation’s most prominent stage.

In this, I’m reminded of a song lyric by the recording artist Fantasia, she of “American Idol” fame. Toward the end of a conflicted, tortured tale of desire and venerability aptly titled “When I See You,” faced with the tribulations her plight she simply declares, “I’m not gonna run; I’m just gonna stand here.” It’s a moment both defiant and welcoming.

David Adjaye, the museum’s primary designer, is on record saying he hopes the building will “spark new dialogues about blackness, about Americaness, about America’s history and its future.” All that is fine, but that’s his hope; not so much mine. At least, not at this particular moment. Far more important, I think, is to access the ground Fantasia claims, the space to stop moving; to only stand. For as long as one chooses. Here, we’ve earned the right to simply be.

On the way to hail a taxi, I spot David Adjaye in the midst of yet another media interview in a day full of them. In an admitted show of bad form, I briefly interrupt to say how much I admire this work. He doesn’t speak; merely touches his heart several times in recognition of the praise, bumps my fist and with a polite nod, points to remind me I’d interrupted an ongoing interview. I nod and excuse myself. On the way to the airport, I lament the missed opportunity to discuss with him these thoughts, wondering how he might have responded. However, the more I think about it, the less it matters. That’s not why either of us was there. Though traveling decidedly different paths, we were both there to be moved.

Moved, to simply be we.

Craig L. Wilkins, Ph.D. and Kresge Artist Fellow, is a senior lecturer at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.