Story in Architecture: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

In honor of Monday’s Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, GHA spent some time musing over the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and researching the story it strives to tell.

Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC


A rectangular, glass building planted in the heart of the National Mall, the NMAAHC is the newest addition to the Smithsonian collection, and it seeks to model the principle that “the building (as a container) embraces its contents.”

Designer David Adjaye and architect Philip Freelon set out synthesize “a variety of distinctive elements from Africa and the Americas into the building’s design and structure.” The museum building, therefore, manifests its contents. 

Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The latticed, three-tiered corona structure stands in stark contrast to the surrounding granite and marble buildings. The corona draws upon the three-tiered crowns depicted in West African Yaruban art and is a signature icon in African art–much like the Corinthian column is an icon of Western art. The bronze filigree screens that comprise the crown draw inspiration from the ironwork forged by African American craftsman in the South, and the lattice’s reflective nature allows the building to change in appearance. Depending on time of day, the corona may appear bright and lively or dark and somber.

Light and the lattice play a practical, as well as an aesthetic, role. The invitation of natural light into the museum moderates energy use and makes the structure sustainable. In fact, the NMAAHC is the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified building on the National Mall.

Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/MNAAHC

Inside, the museum invites visitors to start at the bottom of the museum (fifty percent of the structure is underground!) where they begin to explore history chronologically: from Africa, through slavery, and to the present. Visitors ascend through history along gradually sloped ramps. Above ground, the NMAAHC showcases African American culture and its contribution to American food, art, literature, music, business, science, sports, the military, and more.

Adjaye hopes that the narrative of his design serves as reminder that the National Museum of African American History and Culture is (like the rest of the National Mall) a museum for all Americans.

Photo credit: Karchmer/NMAAHC

GHA loves the storytelling aspect of architecture. We consider the story of each client and infuse it into the design of his or her dream home, and it’s always a pleasure to consider the larger stories communicated through cultural monuments and museums.

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