“The museum’s design has also caused choke-points,” observed a reviewer in The Washington Post. “For example, the intentionally cramped entrance to the slavery section on the lowest level can’t handle the number of people who can fit into the massive elevator that ferries guests below ground. Museum officials have decided to not fill the elevator to capacity, which causes lines at the elevator two levels above.”
Traffic in the three floors above the Heritage Hall entrance level, which include a gift shop — T-shirts, coffee mugs, Kwanzaa items — flows more easily.
Level 2, “Explore Your Family History,” offers interactive displays. There’s the front end of a blue, 1949 Oldsmobile. Seated behind it in “the driver’s seat,” a six-year-old boy from Atlanta swipes a screen that calls up scenes of what he might have experienced if he were taking a trip in the ‘40s from Chicago to grandma’s house in Alabama. He sees signs on restaurants in Indiana refusing to serve “Negroes.” Gas stations in Kentucky whose pumps operated only for whites. One picture advises bringing an empty coffee can along because not all restrooms would accommodate him and his family.
On the same level, in a quiet room lined with computers, a man from Long Island searches for information about his great-grandfather. Spencer Thompson, he learns, lived in South Carolina in 1850, but was not a slave.
Level 3, “Community Galleries,”, honors African American Medal of Honor winners in the “Military Experience” gallery and sports stars in the “Leveling the Playing Field gallery.” An imposing feature in the sports wing is a life-sized statue of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised an Olympian controversy with their black power salute during the playing of our National Anthem at the 1968 Games in Mexico City (only the most devout football fans might know that Smith played for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969 — two games, one reception, 41 yards).
The museum tops out on Level 4, “Cultural Expressions,” two cellphone friendly displays dominate the “Musical Crossroads” gallery: the 1,200-pound Holy Mothership prop used at Parliament-Funkadelic concerts and the late Chuck Berry’s apple-red 1973 Cadillac. The car previously had been driven onto the stage for the documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!,” which was filmed at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. That was the same theater from which he had been denied admission as a child because of his race.
An apt analogy, perhaps, for a museum that’s well worth the wait.
IF YOU GO
— The museum is located at 1400 Constitution Ave NW. Parking in the area is limited and visitors are encouraged to use public transportation.
— Open every day except Christmas from 10-5:30.
— Admission is free but all visitors, including infants, must have tickets, which may be obtained only online at ETIX.
— Advance timed entry passes are released monthly. The next release date is May 3 for tickets to be used in August.
— A limited number of same day tickets are available. Check availability at nmaahc.si.edu
— A limited number of walk-up tickets are available on week days only.
— For more information call 1-844-750-3012