The long march from the agonies of slavery to the symbols of African American pride: a journey that will be illustrated at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), due to open on September 24, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Its most important treasures will be safeguarded inside Goppion display cases.
Designed by Philip Freelon and the famed Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye (winners of the 2009 competition that drew the world’s most prominent architects), the building stands on the National Mall with views over the Capitol, the White House and the Washington Monument. Its exterior alone exudes symbolism: the imposing, warm bronze-colored building – an obvious reference to the ethnic group it celebrates and their contribution to American history – it contrasts sharply with the city’s neoclassical white marble architecture. It features a majestic column ‘rooted’ firmly to the earth and a slender stone base crowned by a capital covered in bronze lattice, inspired both by 19th-century Yoruba sculpture and traditional African women’s hairstyles. A homage to African American craftsmanship, the bronze lattice has wide glass openings giving impressive views over the surrounding area and allowing natural light to filter inside. The south-facing porch – the entrance to the Museum – extends the building out into the landscape and bridges the gap between its interior and exterior.
The project for the NMAAHC stretches back many years. Established in 1929 by an Act of Congress as a fitting tribute to African Americans, it has finally been built almost a century later. While racial tensions have still not disappeared entirely, the museum will be opened on September 24, 2016 by the first black President of the United States as one of the last duties of his presidency.
Dedicated to the central role and importance of African American culture in US history, the NMAAHC is designed to be a place where the community can finally feel at home while encouraging a common pathway for all peoples. Rather than a monument to tragedy or hard times, it is a museum where history can be told.
Brimming with emotional connotations, the museum collection is arranged over seven floors, four below ground and three above ground. Visitors start off in the museum basement, where there is an accurate reproduction of a 19th-century slave hut from South Carolina. The itinerary then moves upwards, embarking on an imaginary journey from segregation to freedom as reflected in more than one thousand artifacts. From the wreck of a slave ship to a train carriage used during segregation, Harriet Tubman’s Hymn Book to Martin Luther King memorabilia, Muhammad Ali’s headgear to Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet to the Jackson Five’s stage costumes.
More than 700 people work every day for the huge construction site, where Goppion has created the most complex display units for the Museum, providing the first-class technology and Italian design deemed essential. More than one hundred cases for various floors of the building, some of them over 8 meters in length, were built exclusively in Italy and shipped in 16 containers to Washington, where Goppion’s team of experts has been working for more than six months. Some of the most iconic, delicate artifacts housed in Goppion cases include the dress Rosa Parks was sewing when she was arrested and a rare signed commemorative copy of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery (dated 1864), whose display case was designed in conjunction with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.