One year ago, we joined thousands of people on the National Mall to witness history. Under a blue-gray Washington sky, the 1776 liberty bell from the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia rang out to mark the official opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Simultaneously, a chorus of bells in houses of worship and town squares across the country rung in response, a symbolic moment that recalled the ringing of bells signaling emancipation more than a century and a half ago.
Since that memorable opening day, the museum has welcomed more than 2.5 million visitors, and online admission passes are sold out almost as soon as they are released. Public and critical acclaim includes Best New Architecture honors from The Wall Street Journal and a first place earned on The New York Times Best of Culture 2016 list. The American Alliance of Museums honored the NMAAHC with its Chair’s Leadership Award, a recognition “reserved for the rare occasion of outstanding leadership and extraordinary accomplishments.”
We are understandably proud of the project’s public and critical success, and of the incredible journey taken with our Smithsonian clients and the legion of designers, builders, and craftspeople to reach the opening and now the first anniversary. We are also proud of the museum’s powerful content – and the timely lessons it teaches.
Talking, Listening, Seeing
Our nation is grappling with political, economic, and social conflicts that challenge our shared vision of who we are today, and of how we will define America in the future. In a time of strife and division, the museum provides us an opportunity to learn, and to find inspiration through the powerful stories it shares. In his dedication remarks last September, President Barack Obama said “Hopefully this museum can help us talk to each other. And more importantly, listen to each other. And most importantly, see each other.”
Based on our conversations over the past year, we believe the museum is achieving this important role the President spoke about, one visitor and one reflection at a time.
Understanding the Power of Cultural Places
A personal lesson for us is the renewed awareness we have of the unmatched potential of cultural institutions as places that build community awareness, invite a shared experience, and celebrate our legacy and collective memory. Throughout history, the most important and inspiring buildings have always been cultural spaces. These are places where truth can be freely told, and people from all walks of life can reflect on the connections between the past, present, and future.
For decades, Perkins+Will’s cultural practice has focused on work associated with remembering, honoring, and celebrating history and culture. For us, design starts with the notion that each place and every client or institution has a story that can be expressed in built form. We strive to imbue the public spaces, landscapes, and buildings we design with meaning and discernable links to the communities each one serves. The lesson given to us by the NMAAHC experience is that fulfilling the aspirations of clients requires a creative fusing of historical, social, and physical contexts with powerful, forward-thinking design. The goal is to energize the public realm while engaging and even challenging those who will visit and be inspired by these spaces.
Continuing Lessons for Unity and Civic Engagement
We strive as architects to design cultural places that are authentic, inviting, and impactful. To achieve this, the dialogue needs to go deeper than traditional or prescriptive notions of cultural value. We learned from our hundreds of conversations with the stakeholders on the Smithsonian project that designing for communities and institutions weighing history, oppression, and conflict requires understanding the full scope of this history, and an ability to come together to find the best ways to tell the stories truthfully and without apology.
The stories that convey authentic cultural experiences offer a way forward for communities and institutions facing up to legacy issues of the contentious past. Charlottesville, New Orleans, Yale University, and our hometown of Durham are just a few among hundreds of communities making decisions about divisive symbols of injustice and oppression.
For our projects including the Smithsonian NMAAHC, Emancipation Park in Houston, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and Freedom Park in Raleigh, the design program supports the storytelling and integrates the experiences – both painful and triumphant – of those whose lives shaped the story.
The path forward, we contend, begins with engaging the entire community to examine the history and the truth – which are not always congruent. By doing so, we create the opportunity President Obama raised last September – to see and hear each other, and from that conversation to create a new vision of public buildings and spaces that inspire us rather than divides us.
Our world is at a crucial moment in history, one that requires inspiration, education, and the ability to understand one another as individuals beyond the headlines and political rhetoric. By applying the lessons and unifying potential emerging from the NMAAHC, we will fully celebrate both its one-year anniversary and its timeless potential for creating positive change.
Watch: Zena Howard and Phil Freelon discuss the opening of the Museum in 2016