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Inside US museum built in honour of black history

By Peter Muiruri | October 13th 2016

The slave trade may be gone but a new library in the United States wants the world to remember the thousands of black men and women who paid the ultimate price for the freedom enjoyed by citizens of the free world.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors a fortnight ago as an addition to the National Mall in Washington DC. The idea for such a museum was mooted over 100 years ago but only got the go-ahead in 2003. Ironically, the new museum sits on a spot that was once a slave market.

It was a heart-wrenching moment as President Barack Obama – the first black US president – wiped a tear from his cheek as ravages of the slave trade coupled with current police shootings of black people in the US escalate.

“This museum provides context for the debates of our times. It illuminates them and gives us some sense of how they evolved and perhaps keeps them in perspective,” said Obama.

Like many other museums around the world, its architectural design is a marvel. It borrows heavily from the silhouette and column forms of traditional African shrines. The new bronze-coated monument takes the form of an obelisk, features that inform the South Sudanese traditional architecture and described as an upside down ziggurat. The rectangular glass edifice covered in cast-metal lattice angles away from the building in three massive tiers that mimic the Yoruba workmanship of a past era.

As its name suggests, everything about the design has been done the African way. This is no coincidence considering the African roots of the lead designer, David Adjaye, a British architect born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents who were on a diplomatic tour of the East African country. They even had a brief stint in Kenya several years after independence.

Adjaye calls himself a citizen of the world, having lived and worked in several countries. His works are among the most iconic in the world. These include famed libraries, museums, and civic centres. The Moscow School of Management, for instance, was based on the compact disc as a symbol of innovation and the Sugar Hill Housing project in Manhattan.

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Adjaye is also the brains behind the design of the Nobel Peace Centre in the shell of a disused railway station in Oslo, Norway. Closer home, says Vogue, Adjaye is designing a modern children’s cancer hospital and teaching centre in Kigali, Rwanda, which is said to be the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa.

But the new museum in Washington is the icing on his cake. The five-storey museum looks sizable enough from the outside. However, half of the building that includes most of the exhibition space is subterranean.

There is light-filled central hall from where visitors can begin their tour by going down four levels. On these dimly-lit floors, visitors come face-to-face with a vast concrete wall that carries a timeline of the African-American experience ranging from the slave trade to the Obama administration.

“The lower levels address a very traumatic history, and these are dimly lit, cavelike spaces. Then, on the upper floors, there are areas that address community, or the making of a middle-class, and culture, which includes arts, music, literature, and sports,” Adjaye told the Architectural Digest magazine.

The museum has started off with a collection of 34,000 pieces of artifacts, some from the original slave ships, including one of the cabins. Then there is a railroad car from the racial segregation era.

On October 28, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, a sister museum to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will hold its inaugural African Art Awards dinner. Among the three awardees is Bob Collymore, CEO of Kenya’s telecommunication giant Safaricom for his avid funding support for art initiatives on the continent.

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