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FEATURE: The Smithsonian’s New African American History Museum

The hottest property in Washington, DC took more than a century to go from dream to reality. After much protestation, arguments over its relevance, and arguments over its funding (something of a Washington, DC pastime), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is a blockbuster hit with museum-goers. Less than a month after its Sept. 24 opening, more than 100,000 people have signed up as charter members, hundreds of thousands have walked through its doors, and advanced reservations are booked through April 2017.

The facade of the museum glitters in the early morning sun. The exterior of the museum is modeled on West African Yoruban crowns, which have three tiers.
The facade of the museum glitters in the early morning sun. The exterior of the museum is modeled on West African Yoruban crowns, which have three tiers.

If those numbers sound abstract to you, here’s an artistic comparison: It’s harder to get an advanced ticket to NMAAHC than it was to get tickets to The Book of Mormon when that blockbuster show erupted on Broadway. On Sunday morning, those hoping for same-day admission tickets started camping out at 3 AM, armed with lawn chairs, sleeping bags, and tablet computers to pass away the pre-dawn hours with some recorded entertainment. Most of these faithful were from the greater Baltimore-DC area; around 7 AM, would-be visitors from out of town started to trickle in. Where were they from? Philadelphia, Chicago, Richmond, New York City, and more; some were on their second or third try at getting one of the limited number of same-day admission tickets given out at 9:30 AM each day.

Hopeful museum attendees from out of town wait in the Same-Day Admission line in the early morning.
Hopeful museum attendees from out of town wait in the Same-Day Admission line in the early morning.

By 7:30 AM, however, it was too late to be joining the line unless you had a friend saving a spot; in the end, only the first 150 or so people in line were able to walk away with tickets. (More were able to enter – each person who does receive tickets gets a set of four.) Still, the hopeful continued to queue up; by 8 AM, the line stretched around three sides of the block. After the cutoff was announced, the security staff encouraged those on the not-receiving side to solicit the lucky for spare tickets. (Several were so lucky.)

If you like success narratives, the story that brought this museum to fruition and opening is certainly one for the books – more than a century of advocacy, lobbying, and changes in the cultural fabric of the United States. When Lonnie G. Bunch III left the Chicago Historical Society in 2005 to become the founding director of NMAAHC, the site for the museum still hadn’t been selected. This was already two years after Congress enacted the NMAAHC Act, P.L. 108-184 (in December 2003) to fund and establish the museum; it would be 11 years before the museum finally opened. According to the 450 people waiting hopefully in line on Sunday, it was late but worth the wait.

Visitors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture are strongly encouraged to reserve timed-entry advance passes when planning their visit. As of press time, the earliest that reservations were available was April 2017.

Watch a Time Lapse of the Construction of the Museum

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and a contributing writer for The Boston Music Intelligencer. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America‘s 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.

http://basilconsidine.org
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