A Guide to the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum

The exterior view of the museum.

The idea of a national African-American museum was conceived by black Civil War veterans more than a century ago.

On Sept. 24, their vision became a reality with the opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington.

Some 3,500 artifacts, including a set of slave shackles, a Tuskegee Airmen biplane and a fedora that belonged to Michael Jackson, are on display in the 400,000-square-foot museum, which strives to tell the complex, harrowing and irrepressible story of black America.

Such a sweeping survey has not surprisingly drawn interest from visitors. Here is information on how to explore the museum, and on where to eat and stay in the city.

THE HIGHLIGHTS The museum’s collection is laid out chronologically, from the Middle Passage to the Obama presidency. Visitors are directed to descend 70 feet below ground, via a spiral ramp or elevator, to begin with the sections on African-American history. The bottom floor, which documents slavery, features artifacts like an auction block and works like a statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in front of a wall of bricks listing the names of slaves he owned. The next floor, covering segregation, has stirring exhibits like a chapel that holds the windowed coffin that once held the body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly flirting with a white woman. The floor just below ground level takes the visitor from 1968 to today through objects like banners from President Obama’s 2008 campaign and posters from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Above ground level are the “Community” galleries, which tell the stories of African-Americans in the military and in sports through items like the Olympic medals of Carl Lewis and statues of Serena and Venus Williams. The “Culture” galleries, which focus on African-Americans’ contributions to the arts, music, film and television, have particularly fun memorabilia like Chuck Berry’s cherry-red Cadillac and Oprah Winfrey’s couch from the set of her television show.

These floors, which are brighter literally and thematically, can be viewed without touring the history sections below. But Graham Bowley, a New York Times reporter who covers the Smithsonian, said he recommended viewing the collection as the curators intended, starting with the history sections. “That’s an uplifting and interesting way to go,” he said.

The museum offers a number of apps that serve as exhibition guides, including one geared toward younger visitors that uses age-appropriate language. To download, visit nmaahc.si.edu/connect/mobile/apps.

LOGISTICS Visitors must obtain a pass for timed admission. Free same-day passes are distributed on a first-come-first-served basis to visitors who show up in person starting at 9:15 a.m. Each person can get up to four same-day passes.

Advance passes will also be available. They can be reserved through the museum’s website or at 919-653-0443 or 800-514-3849. Though they are no longer available through December, advance passes for visits in January, February and March will be released on the museum’s website on Oct. 3 at 9 a.m. You can reserve six passes, including for children and infants, per person.

The museum is open daily, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but will have extended hours through the first weekend in October: Oct. 1, 10 a.m. to midnight; Oct. 2, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The museum sits on prime real estate of the National Mall: a five-acre site close to the Washington Monument. To its west is the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool, with the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial not far from the route. To its east is the Capitol, as well as a number of other Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of Natural History, the National Gallery of Art and the National Air and Space Museum, along the way.

For a bite to eat, check out the museum’s Sweet Home Café, with Southern comfort dishes like buttermilk-fried chicken alongside Caribbean-style spicy braised beef and vegetarian empanadas (entrees $8 to $15). With close to 40 vendors, Union Market (1309 Fifth Street NE, unionmarketdc.com) offers all types of foods, from sushi to Korean-inspired tacos. At the Capitol Hill or Georgetown location of the Good Stuff Eatery (goodstuffeatery.com), you can find a farm-raised beef burger for $6.65.

Washington has a wide selection of high-end and midrange hotels. The Hyatt Place (400 E Street SW; 202-803-6110; dcnationalmall.place.hyatt.com; rates starting at $130), has a rooftop bar, CityBar, which offers sweeping views of the National Mall. Near Logan Circle is a new stylish hotel, Kimpton Mason and Rook (1430 Rhode Island Avenue NW; 202-462-9001; masonandrookhotel.com; rates starting at $180). A family-friendly option not far from the White House is the Holiday Inn (1501 Rhode Island Avenue NW; 202-483-2000; inndc.com; rates starting at $169), where children can eat breakfast free at its cafe.

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