On my last day in DC, I decided to try to see the NMAAHC. As part of the Smithsonian, entrance is free, but entry is via timed tickets because of the popularity of the museum. Advance timed entry tickets are all gone through March 2017, but if you walk up, there may be some same day tickets available. Luckily, I had no trouble getting in.
I didn’t have time to see everything at the museum, so I decided to focus on the three floors of history and skip the culture floors on this trip. Even so, I couldn’t really take in all the history, both because of time and because of the volume of information. The history exhibits are designed in a way I like, where you are taken along a path that tells a story, with artifacts, text, and multimedia support to inform you along the way. I think I could go along that path 4-5 times and still be digging in at new depths.
The artifacts that moved me the most were from the wreck of a Spanish ship that had carried Africans to be sold as slaves. On display were some big pieces of iron, shaped vaguely like railroad ties. These were ballast; human beings were lighter than other types of cargo, and so iron ballast was needed to balance the weight of the ship. Humans reduced to a logistical problem.
The most compelling, disturbing, and emotional multimedia exhibit included an interview with Emmitt Till’s mother discussing seeing her son’s body. He had been badly beaten, and his face was grotesquely damaged. She chose to have an open casket funeral, so everyone would see what she had seen, and see the atrocities committed on her son. There was no picture of the body, but hearing her describe the injuries was stomach-turning. Emmitt Till was 14 years old when he was murdered because he had spoken to a 21 year old white woman while visiting Mississippi.
The majority of my fellow visitors to the museum were African American. I hope more whites visit the museum as well, to gain a better understanding of how deeply race is embedded in our system. We are not a post-racial society, we are not a color blind society, and never will be as long as we refuse to face how big an impact slavery has had on every aspect of our country. The effects continue to reverberate, because so many choices in our constitution were compromises about slavery. We can’t “get past race” by ignoring our history.