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Roots And A Crown: Building the National Museum of African American History And Culture

African American Muesum 440x

The city’s newest museum and the only national museum devoted exclusively to African American life opened its doors on Sept. 24, 2016, and instantly became a hit. It’s the third most popular Smithsonian facility in Washington, D.C., after the National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of Natural History and is on track to host an estimated 3.8 million visitors in its first year.

A stunning example of engineering and construction, the $540 million project is both the deepest museum and first green museum on the National Mall. The “how” and “why” of the building’s construction is as much a part of the African American story as the thousands of artifacts inside.

From The Ground Up – And Down

The museum took a long time to get off the ground – in more ways than one.

The concept of a national African American museum first began circulating a century ago, but it wasn’t until late 2001 when former President George W. Bush signed legislation making the project possible. A 5-acre site near the Washington Monument was chosen as the location.

The museum board of trustees sponsored a design competition in 2008, inviting hundreds of architects and firms to participate. The criteria specified that the museum had to have three stories below ground and five above ground and meet stringent federal security standards. It also had to respect the history and views of the Washington Monument, be built solely on the chosen 5-acre site and be LEED Gold certified. To win, the design had to exhibit optimism, spirituality and joy but also acknowledge what the board called “the dark corners” of African American history.

African American Muesum Waterfall Fountain

The winning design was submitted by Freelon Group/Adjaye Associates/Davis Brody Bond. Clark Construction Group, Smoot Construction and H.J. Russell & Company won the building contract. McKissack and McKissack, the first African American-owned architectural firm in the United States, provided project management services on behalf of the Smithsonian.

Construction crews got their feet wet – literally – putting in the foundation. The museum is situated on a low point on the Mall. The water table was only about 8 feet below street level, but the foundation needed to be 90 feet underground. Groundwater puts 27.78 pounds per square inch of pressure on the walls. To compensate, 85 gallons per minute of water were pumped out every day during the construction of the foundation and below-grade walls. A cement-sand slurry was injected into forms to stabilize the site and lasers were used continually to monitor the walls for any signs of bulging or displacement. To keep water out now that the museum is finished, a sophisticated pumping system recycles it for flush toilets – one of many sustainable features of the museum.

The museum is seeking to become the first Gold LEED-certified building on the Mall. In addition to the water pumping/flushing system, the museum sports solar cells on the roof to produce electricity for water heating. It also has a green roof along the Constitution Avenue side.

The first concrete was poured in November 2012, about nine months after groundbreaking. As lower levels were completed, crews used cranes to install two items so large they could not be dismantled and installed in the usual way: a segregated railroad passenger car and a guard tower from the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, infamous for its mistreatment of it mostly African-American inmates. The rest of the museum was built around them.

Visitors begin their trip underground as well with a look at the trans-Atlantic slave trade, then proceed through upper floors chronologically.

The above-ground levels feature an inverted step pyramid surrounded by a bronze architectural scrim inspired by a Yoruban sculpture from the early 20th century. The sculpture, which depicts a woman wearing a similar three-tiered crown, is on display in the museum’s culture galleries.

The scrim, sometimes called the corona, is the signature feature of the exterior. Made of 230 tons of bronze-colored aluminum panels – 3,600 panels in all – its intricate metalwork pays homage to the unknown and unsung ornamental ironworkers, slaves and freedmen who crafted the signature wrought iron of Charleston, SC, New Orleans, LA, and other cities across the South.

African American Muesum Opening Ceremony

Opening The Doors

President Barack Obama officially opened the museum on Sept. 24, 2016, calling the museum “a monument, no less than the others on this Mall, to the deep and abiding love for this country, and the ideals upon which it is founded. For we, too, are America.

“It reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it's not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we've been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals.”

With him were members of the Bonner family, descendants of a Mississippi slave, Elijah B. Odom, who gained his freedom by fleeing his owner. Odom’s 99-year-old daughter, Ruth Bonner, helped the President ring a bell that dates back to the 1880s and came from the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, VA.

Former President Bush told the crowd how the bill to create the museum was bipartisan, coming from Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and then-Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS). He was honored to sign the legislation because, he said, “It shows our commitment to truth. A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them. This museum tells the truth that a country founded on the promise of liberty held millions in chains.”

African American Muesum Gallery

The museum also “showcases the talent of some of our finest Americans,” he said, citing childhood idols musician Chuck Berry and baseball great Willie Mays.

The museum’s extensive collection – some 36,000 items in all, about 3,500 of which are on display at any one time – tells the story of slavery and Civil Rights, as well as the artistic, community, sports and other contributions of African-Americans. Items include:

  1. The dress Rosa Parks was sewing before she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955
  2. A bill of sale for a 16-year-old girl named Polly, who was transferred between owners in 1835 for $600
  3. Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal
  4. A fully restored slave cabin from a plantation on Edisto Island, SC
  5. Shackles used to restrain slaves in the holds of ships on the Middle Passage between Africa and North America
  6. A Bible that belonged to slave rebellion leader Nat Turner
  7. The casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old lynched in 1955 for whistling at a white woman
  8. Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac
  9. The dress Marian Anderson wore when she sang at the Lincoln Memorial
  10. Costumes from The Wiz, the all-black Broadway musical based on The Wizard of Oz
  11. Olympic medals belonging to Carl Lewis
  12. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet
  13. A flute played by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, an autistic savant and musical prodigy
African American Muesum and Washington Monument Wide

Plastic: A Foundation Of Construction

Plastic plays a role in bringing the nation’s history to life and is part of construction projects large and small.

More than 15 billion pounds of plastic are used annually in building and construction, making the industry the second largest consumer of plastic in the nation. Plastic can be found in everything from safety fencing and hard hats during the construction phase to pipes and fittings, roofing, ceilings, insulation, walls, windows and skylights.

Plastics Color provides a range of specialty and functional additives that can enhance the performance of plastics in construction, including FlamaSol, a flame retardant additive which is ideal for electrical conduit, switch boxes and other applications where flammability or ignition is a concern; antioxidant additives, which help prevent oxidation and degradation of the polymer; and UV stabilizer additives, designed to block or absorb UV light and prevent decomposition of the polymer.

The experts at Plastics Color can help determine which plastic additives best suit your product and will work with you from the planning stage through production. For more information, contact a Plastics Color representative today.

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