Monday, October 24, 2016

Addy Visits the National Museum of African American History and Culture!

Say hello to the newest Smithsonian!

I have a really cool announcement for anyone who's been living in a cave for the last couple years: there's a new Smithsonian on the Mall, and it's basically the best thing ever.

Plans for a Smithsonian focusing on African American history and culture have been in the works for a long time, and for the last several years, visitors to Washington could watch as a massive, unique structure was erected right next to the Washington Monument to house the collection. I know I've been impatiently waiting to see what the museum's like for what feels like forever, as every time I visited the city over the last five years or so the building looked closer and closer to being complete.

Well, the wait is finally over, and let me tell you, it was definitely worth being patient for.

DISCLAIMER: The following post contains images that may be upsetting to some viewers. Specifically, Addy has been photographed "touring" the exhibits and galleries at the museum as though she is a sentient being and is visiting it in the same way I have done past posts on site at historical sites and museums. I am but one white person, showing images that many people at this time cannot see for themselves, and I took Addy with me as the American Girl representative since she is the oldest black character AG has released and the most well known. The images contained are actual items, and they are brutal, but true, and are the kind of history that we, as people who claim to be interested in history, need to see. Because American history is not just pretty food and fancy dresses, it is brutality and oppression and ugly but if we do not look at it at the past, then we will never be able to see how not to perpetuate these things.

Plans for the National Museum of African American History and Culture can be traced back to the early 20th century, and have been essentially trapped in development hell since then. Over the years, issues arose with whether or not a collection should just be housed inside of an existing Smithsonian, or whether a space allocated for it was too small, or whether the African American community even wanted the Smithsonian to be responsible for telling their story. Representative John Lewis kept advocating for a separate national museum with a focus on African American history rather than just a subbranch of the Smithsonian's existing institutions, and the plan for a new museum on the National Mall was finally approved by President George W. Bush in 2001. The new museum is the result of all that hard work.

Right now it's tricky to get into the museum. They've anticipated the huge attention it would draw and have organized a system of timed passes guests can (and need to) reserve well in advance. I booked mine pretty soon after I showed up on campus and wound up with 10:00 on October 18th, a day I knew I wouldn't have class or work. I've been impatiently awaiting my visit ever since, and decided to bring Addy along for photos. I was a little torn between her and Melody, but as Addy is the older character, the first Black doll produced by AG and one of my favorite characters since I was a kid, it felt fitting she be the first one to tour the new museum.

Now I'm going to admit a possibly shocking thing: to be totally honest, I actually don't really like most of the Smithsonians. Air and Space is okay, but I really don't like the layout of the National Museum of American History or the National Museum of the American Indian. Neither museum has an exhibit that's really focused on presenting the story of American or Native American history from start to finish, which I think is important to provide visitors in a really touristy area that draws a lot of international visitors who haven't studied this history in school. The individual exhibits are well done and interesting, but I often feel like they might not always do a great job of really explaining to visitors why we are the way we are. I was very curious to see if the NMAAHC would have a similar format, or if they would have exhibits that were more focused on history from start to "finish".

As it turns out, much to my delight, the NMAAHC does deviate sharply from NMAH and NMAI, and in a lot of ways I think they've managed to find a system that gives you the best of both worlds when it comes to exhibit focus and design. It's an interestingly shaped building: the visible parts of the building are actually only the top three floors, while most of the main exhibit space is underground. It's recommended that visitors start from the bottom up to the main level, and then to go from the top down to get the full museum experience. Taking that advice, Addy and I headed right to the bottom three galleries, which are focused on the history of African Americans in the United States.

Perhaps more accurately, it starts with an overview of the African slave trade in general, giving you the background knowledge about when it started and why it happened in the first place.

One of the most moving rooms in the whole museum is the exhibit about the Middle Passage, the trip slave ships would take to ferry slaves to the New World. Artifacts from wrecked slave ships are on display with discussions of how underwater archaeologists are trying to preserve the history of wreck sites, and oral histories are played in the room to give you a sense of what life on board a slave ship was really like.

 The museum quickly drops the international focus to hone in on the future United States, breaking the exhibits down by region to show the spread of slavery in the American colonies and how there came to be such a sharp divide between white and Black workers. Originally, African colonists were not always slaves. Some were indentured servants just like their white colleagues who were able to earn their own land after fulfilling their contract and there are documented examples of free people of color even owning black slaves of their own, or white indentured servants.

The exhibit does a good job of explaining how southern plantation owners gradually stripped rights away from these citizens and began to enforce institutional, racially based slavery.

This part of the exhibit also features spotlights on specific slaves, giving information about how they came to be a slave and what the rest of their lives were like. It was really refreshing seeing stuff like this prominently on display in an exhibit rather than just a throw away panel for diversity's sake.

The exhibit moved into discussing the American Revolution, highlighting stories from both Black patriots and loyalists, explaining why a slave or free person of color might identify with one side or the other.

The next room seems to be the one that has resonated with most people on my Facebook feed, as well as various news sites and blogs. It's certainly understandable, considering the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the bricks with all the names of his slaves is sending a pretty powerful message about the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers.

Also the lighting and general set up do make Thomas Jefferson extremely photogenic.

But what I've seen less of a focus on in other people's pictures from the museum is that there are other people featured in this display, including the likes of Phyllis Wheatley, a poet, freed slave and patriot. I like that people are responding so well to this critique of Thomas Jefferson, but I'm also a little annoyed that once again he's getting most people's attention.

The next several galleries focus on the institution of slavery and what it was like to be a slave in the time between the Revolution and the Civil War. Another display includes oral histories that discuss the trauma of families being separated and being treated like livestock instead of human beings. An auction block is on display, as well as a whip, cotton fabric produced with the cotton from Southern plantations (one of which looks a lot like the fabric from Caroline's travel dress...) and artifacts relating to the Underground Railroad, including Harriet Tubman's shawl and prayer book.

That I have to admit was one of my favorite pieces in the collection. I know it's a little cliche to enjoy prominent figures like Tubman, but she was a really, really interesting person who absolutely deserves the respect and attention she gets.

The next gallery focused on life on plantations, from religion, clothing, toys, food and shelter. This was definitely one of the exhibits that moved me the most, partially because I was standing there holding a doll whose books talk specifically about these struggles and I was looking at artifacts that belonged to the real Addy and Ruth Walkers, but also just because even in museums that do talk about slavery, they don't often talk about it the way NMAAHC gets to. It's not just in passing, and there isn't just one or two token artifacts. It was just really good to see these stories being told visually along with the more typical discussions of Uncle Tom's Cabin or John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, both of which were still prominently featured in the next gallery about the Abolition movement.

Being a military history enthusiast, I was a little disappointed to discover that the Civil War sections of the gallery were a little sparse, especially because I've done some research into the role of Black men fighting for the Union Army and of course I'd like to see the people I've studied featured more prominently. That said, it's still a meaty exhibit with good artifacts, I'm just always interested in the life of the average combat soldier and have been spoiled by places like the National WWII Museum.

One of the dresses featured in the last part of the exhibits on the first floor really reminded me of Addy's original Meet Dress. The exhibit text mentioned that after the war, Black Americans would go out of their way to make sure their clothes looked nice to further separate from slavery and establish themselves as important, upstanding members of society, so please, continue to whine about how it's not historically accurate for Addy to own nice clothes, American Girl fandom. It's really just exposing you as an ignorant racist.

As you move upstairs, you can see the larger parts of the bottom floor exhibits more clearly, including the slave cabin and the bales of cotton. I tried to get better pictures of both down below, but as you might have noticed, the lighting in the exhibits on the bottom floor especially doesn't always lend itself well to blog photography. Very minor complaint that most people won't notice, but I did have to trash some photos because they were just too blurry to show you guys. Sorry!

The second floor focuses on how African Americans began to integrate themselves as free citizens into all aspects of American society, while also continuing to fight for their rights to equal pay, education, housing, and literally every other opportunity that should be available to American citizens because racism didn't die with slavery. It also discusses the rise of the KKK, lynchings, stereotypical portrayals of Black people in media and Jim Crowe laws, and those sections definitely do not pull any punches. Again, upsetting, but refreshing as well.

There was also a great emphasis on the role of Women of Color like Ida B. Wells and Madame C. J. Walker. I hope this goes without saying, but women's history often gets shoved off to the side in museums, and I really didn't feel like that was the case here. There was always discussion of the female experience and perspective, and again, I found that to be a breath of fresh air.

Again, I was disappointed that there was relatively little discussion of the African American experience in World War II. There are a lot of really great stories from that period that I wish the museum had spent a little more time with, but I get that this is me maybe being biased.

But speaking of bias, the exhibit also included dolls used during the Clarks' doll experiments, a test that has been replicated several times that universally suggests that Black children are inherently conditioned by media and society to think of the Black doll as ugly, bad, or just generally less desirable than the white doll. The Clarks' experiment helped shed light on the internalized racism and self hatred Black children, and continues to be a prominent study cited when people discuss racism and lack of representation in the toy industry... sound familiar, anyone?

It was cool to see this specifically mentioned in the exhibit because it's become such a hot button issue in the American Girl community, with people refusing to understand why it's not okay that American Girl has never had a Black Girl of the Year character, or continues to lack an Asian American lead in the BeForever line up. Just because these experiments were conducted in the 1940's doesn't mean they aren't relevant in today's society too, and while it's true we've come a long way, we still have a lot further to go.

The second floor was also home to the galleries about the Civil Rights movement, including the dress Rosa Parks was sewing when she was asked to move to the back of the bus, artifacts from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church (which is prominently featured in Melody's book series) and discussions of integrating schools, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and sit ins at lunch counters.

There is also a room devoted solely to the murder of Emmett Till, including the coffin his body was displayed in for his wake. Photography is not permitted in the room - which I was honestly grateful for, we really don't need any obnoxious selfies with it, thank you - so I don't have an image to show you, but it was intensely upsetting and poignant, although I feel a little ridiculous trying to even put something like that into words. It's important and emotional, and I'm glad it gets such a heavy focus.

One of the other features of the second floor is an interactive "lunch counter" touch screen where you can play a series of what would you do questions relating to the Civil Rights movement. It was a neat way to get people thinking about the different attitudes of the time and what kind of bravery it took to do something as simple as attend school or enter a restaurant. There were also a lot of chairs for people to sit in, so it doesn't seem like something where one person is going to wind up hogging the whole display for twenty minutes, which can sometimes be a problem with interactive touch screens.

Notice there's silverware and drinks on the screen around the edges? Really neat touch!

The third floor continues into the modern era, discussing things like the Black Power movement, Vietnam, increased representation of African Americans on television and in the movies, as well as movements like Black is Beautiful and the music industry. They have part of a set from Oprah's talk show and lots of artifacts relating to both Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as a small nod to the #blacklivesmatter movement. A classmate mentioned she'd wished this had been more prominently featured, but I'm wondering if it's something where you can't do a full exhibit for it until it's a little further in the past, just because you don't want to spend thousands of dollars building an exhibit that's going to wind up out of date in a year.

After you've walked through all three floors, there is a reflection room you can go sit and decompress for a bit. Water pours down from the ceiling from a fountain that's also visible outside, and the walls are lined with quotes from significant people in Black history. It's really beautiful and very peaceful, although you can get a little damp if you step too close to the fountain.

The top three floors are more focused on special topics in Black history, and feel much more like the traditional Smithsonian exhibit design I mentioned above. There are galleries focused on sports, music, film and television, along with the tradition of wearing fancy church hats, Black communities in places like Martha's Vineyard and a bigger focus on Black Americans in the military over the years. I still wasn't totally satisfied with that gallery - maybe I've been spoiled by the new P-51 painted to look like a Redtail at the WWII Museum - but like I said before, I think I get greedy now that I've been to a couple museums that pretty perfectly discuss my favorite topics in American history.

Still, it had a really cool selection of artifacts and did a great job expanding on things that the more historically themed galleries just didn't have time to cover in depth. The sports gallery also had a lot of statues of famous figures, which was a neat way of getting people up close and personal with history. One floor also offers educational, hands on materials, including advice on how to trace your genealogy.

My only real complaint with the museum was in these culture galleries: there was almost no reference to Nichelle Nichols as Uhura! Which seems like a ridiculous critique and in a lot of ways it is. If this was the only thing the museum was lacking, that's probably a good thing, right? But I was bummed because she's such an important figure as a fictional character and actress. Lt. Uhura was one of the first Black women on television who was portrayed as a professional who wasn't a housekeeper, cook or servant. She was included in a subtle way, but I was hoping they'd have a costume or prop that related to her. Ah well! Maybe someday.

After you're done visiting the exhibits, you have to head over to the museum restaurant. Before the museum opened, I was dying of curiosity about what they'd do for their restaurant, because as you know (or may be able to guess), I love food history. When museums are able to make their restaurants synch up with their exhibits, I just light up inside. I really feel like it's a technique more museums should use to get people to justify spending money at their often overpriced cafeterias, as it adds to the museum experience instead of giving you food poisoning from a mediocre $20 hamburger.

Sweet Home Cafe passes my awesome museum restaurant test. Do not miss out on this place when you come visit.

Much like Cafe Mitsitam at the National Museum of the American Indian, the restaurant is cafeteria style and divided into different regions, with dishes highlighting traditional Black cuisine from the south, west, north and what's essentially bayou country. Picking just one or two things to eat is extremely difficult because there are a lot of options and everything looks and smells incredible. The menu is available to peruse online, and it doesn't look like they have an official cookbook out yet, but I hope they come out with one soon.

The interior of the restaurant is decorated with images of people eating, cooking or growing food, including a very prominent image of the sit ins at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina. It's very open and has lots of seats, but does get crowded as the day goes on.

I decided to splurge and treat myself to the Brunswick stew, Hoppin' John and sweet potato pie, all of which came from the southern station. They also all happen to be things I've made for the blog before, and I was excited to see how the versions I've made matched up to the museum's.

Something I was very excited about was although the prices are a little steep, they really don't skimp on portions. I had a large bowl of soup and a very generous portion of Hoppin' John, and didn't really feel like eating food for the rest of the day, which as a grad school student on a limited budget is always a nice thing. The Brunswick stew was really tasty and hearty, with a lot of tender meat and vegetables. I was honestly a little disappointed by the Hoppin' John because it didn't have much flavor. I think the one from Addy's Cook Book I made last January had more bacon elements obvious in it, but rice and beans is always tasty anyway so I did enjoy it.

And don't forget dessert! I was tempted by a lot of their options, but decided to go for the sweet potato pie both because it's a great fall dessert, and also because sweet potato pie and pudding are Addy's family favorite desserts. This did not disappoint, and I would like eight more immediately please and thank you.

The gift shop has a really interesting range of products and books, as well as a bunch of cool, reasonably priced t-shirts for the museum that I was extremely tempted by.

I did however get really excited when I saw they had all of Addy and Melody's books, as well as their mini dolls. There was even a little paper card explaining why African American dolls are so important, and... I might have caved and bought a mini Addy. She seemed like an appropriate memento of my trip.

A couple pieces of advice for anyone looking to visit the museum any time soon: once timed passes are available again, get the earliest time slot possible. It's a big museum, and by the time I left, it was definitely starting to get uncomfortably crowded with a long line for the lower exhibit galleries. If you go when it's less crowded in the morning, you'll ultimately have more time and space to actually enjoy your visit instead of picking and choosing what's most important to see because the museum's going to close in an hour and you only just got admitted into the gallery. The same holds true for the gift shop and the restaurant - be prepared to wait in line if you go later in the day.

Timed passes are currently sold out through March of 2017, but will be available again probably a little closer to the end of the year for April onward. They do offer same day passes on a first come, first serve basis, so it is possible you could get lucky and score tickets for the museum (and while these had times on them, I saw people with tickets for 2:45 being let in at 10:00), but be aware that these get snapped up quickly too. I was there at 9:15 and the line was already very long, and I overheard one of the museum employees saying passes were already close to being gone.

All of that being said, the potential hassle is definitely worth it because this is a really incredible museum. I'm sure it's obvious by now how much I enjoyed it, but I really just want to take a moment to reiterate how this is hands down my favorite Smithsonian. Like, there is literally no contest. The collections are impressive, the galleries are very well designed and visually incredible, and the museum has made a really concerted effort to shed some light on stories that often get overlooked in other institutions. I'm really excited to see what else is in store with this awesome new museum, and hope you guys can get down here soon to check it out for yourself!

Hope you enjoyed our walk through!


  1. I LOVE that there's a feature on James Armistead Lafayette. He's such a badass.

  2. "The exhibit text mentioned that after the war, Black Americans would go out of their way to make sure their clothes looked nice to further separate from slavery and establish themselves as important, upstanding members of society, so please, continue to whine about how it's not historically accurate for Addy to own nice clothes, American Girl fandom. It's really just exposing you as an ignorant racist."


    The Clarks' experiment helped shed light on the internalized racism and self hatred Black children, and continues to be a prominent study cited when people discuss racism and lack of representation in the toy industry... sound familiar, anyone?

    *yells at the cheap seats again* They did the test in 2010 thereabouts, and guess what? It still had black kids who were saying black dolls were ugly or dumb or bad because they were brown. But keep going on how AG can just release tons of white characters and they're just doing what 'sells.' I'll sit here on the self esteem of everyone else and wait.

    I want to go to this but I will need to clear my schedule, clear my mind, and be with someone who understands that I will be ugly crying all the time because Generational trauma is a thing.

    (repost for formatting.)

    1. It's really incredible, I hope you get a chance to go soon. Not that it's going anywhere or anything, but I just want everyone to get to see it immediately because it's so well done.

  3. Thank you for this informative, sensitive, and thorough journey through the museum. The tangible artifacts are so moving, even in photos. I hope soon to go visit--I am so very excited about this essential museum, a long time coming (too long), but now here for all.

    And I think sweet potato pie wins the dessert contest, hands down!


    1. You're very welcome! And it definitely did, I think I've got to make some for myself sometime soon.

  4. As a black woman, former Smithsonian employee, charter member of the NMAAHC, and two-time visitor, I appreciate what you’re doing. But I am compelled to express my disappointment at how Addy is posed in front of the sections depicting slaves, slavery related items, and the Middle Passage sign. Addy was my first doll, and she’s still my favorite. Her stories feel very real and I love that. But at the end of the day, she’s a toy.

    The Middle Passage was a horrific experience for people that survived – and over half did not on most ships. Captives were forced to urinate and defecate near and even on each other, women were raped for both sailor’s pleasure and the hope with making her pregnant so she’d sell for more money, and some people wailed for hours on end from the sheer despair. Those that could make it to the edge of the ship sometimes jumped on purpose because they couldn’t handle the conditions. Those that died unwillingly were thrown into the ocean like garbage.

    Seeing a doll in front of a sign that references such a tragedy made my stomach turn over. I was also very uncomfortable with the shots of a doll in front of pictures of slaves, looking at a slave cabin, and a few other things. That was a horrible time for my ancestors, and I think posing a toy near the pictures and words that reference that time degrades it, even though you clearly meant well.

    I’m sure many people appreciate your blog, especially those that can’t make it to the museum. But I had to respectfully express my feelings because they were so visceral when I saw the previously mentioned pictures. It wouldn’t feel right to me if I just let it go. Thank you for listening.

    1. Thank you for your honesty. How can I rectify this? I am very aware of the history and obviously did not mean to cause offense, but intent is not magic and I'm happy to edit this or remove it entirely to at least attempt to correct it.

    2. Thank you for your kind response. Do you perhaps have pictures of the same sections without the doll in the shot?

    3. No, I do not. I took pictures at the site the same way I do at every museum, which means the doll is in 90% of the pictures because that's how I've done travel posts in the past. They are always done with the intention of acting like the toy is somewhat self aware and is visiting the museum. Think Woody and Buzz going to a museum and interacting with the exhibit.

      I won't be able to get new pictures until January at the earliest and have been specifically asked not to remove them for the time being. Instead, I will edit in a disclaimer when I get home tonight with a content warning, and will replace the photos when I can get new ones. I hope this is a compromise that works for everyone.

  5. Hello Gwen and Miss Midoria! I want to chime in here and offer some additional perspective. It is standard for many doll bloggers to take photos with their dolls posed in front of locations as well as speak from their voice. The idea is to encourage, through the use of the dolls, interaction with the larger world. No disrespect is meant because the subject matter here is sensitive. This blog is part of the doll world media. It isn't designed to be museum promotional or cause promotional. I don't think there is any thought or assertion that what our American ancestors went through in many cases, including the specifics you highlight, was not anything less than horrific. Putting a doll in front of a museum display does not change that. Yes, Addy is a toy doll. She is also a conduit to another world which doesn't have to be limited to play. Her story was designed to invite people into the narrative. She continues to do so in this blog post. I'm glad to have read your comments. Dialogue is good. Since everything in A Peek Into the Pantry follows a doll, this post was no exception in keeping with that ideology and I found it completely appropriate and inviting, like all of Gwen's posts.

  6. Thank you for doing such a thorough visit with pictures! I don't know when I'll be heading over there. I'm glad you captured so much for us!

    1. You're very welcome! Hope you can come visit soon. :)

  7. Your pictures are wonderful. Thank you for the tour. I just missed you! Mini Addy and I were there two days later. I wish we had been there at the same time! I only had time to run through the lower gallery on slavery and the Civil War before I had to return to my conference. I almost caved and bought another mini Addy but didn't have enough spending money and have too many kids in my life to buy just one toy for one kid!