From its approval by an Act of Congress in 2003 to its completion in 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the result of deliberate care and design. The location, surroundings, and influences would all help to develop a meaningful relationship to the site.  Judges decided on Adjaye Associates’ design for this significantly historic project in partnership with Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond.

NMAAHC museum location in relation to the Washington Monument.
This photo shows the north lawn at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The corona is based on elements of the Washington Monument in the background, closely matching the angle of the capstone.

Design Architect – Adjaye Associates

Sir David Adjaye OBE, founder of Adjaye Associates, is an award winning Ghanaian-British architect. In addition to his meaningful portfolio of projects, he also received recognition as one of the 100 most influential people of the year by Time Magazine in 2017.  Queen Elizabeth II knighted him that same year.  He has lived in Egypt, England, Lebanon, and Tanzania and has visited all 54 independent nations of Africa. In 2008, the Adjaye Associates practice won the competition to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Adjaye’s projects span the globe, but the museum is the firm’s largest project to date.

Adjaye associates use diffused light through a water feature in the museum.
Below ground is a triple height history gallery and memorial space called the “oculus.” It brings in light diffused by a cascade of water to create a contemplative and monumental ambience.

Adjaye Associates Design Intent

Winning the Beazley Design of the Year award in 2017, the museum was said to deliver emotional experiences.  “You enter the building clouded in darkness and work your way through the displays and end bathed in light”, said Ozwald Boateng, one of the judges. It was important to Adjaye Associates that the design was both architecturally practical and sustainable. For instance, the porch creates a microclimate where breezes combine with the cooling waters to give refuge from the hot summer sun.  Outside, the corona of the museum reflects the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. Inside, visitors experience vast spaces, natural light, and diverse materials like pre-cast concrete, timber, and a glazed skin.

Interior lighting of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
As visitors explore the museum, they walk along the corona with panoramas of the Mall, Federal Triangle buildings and Monument Grounds.

Technical Details

In 2008, a competition for the design of a 350,000-square-foot building with three stories below-ground and five stories above-ground began.  In addition to the five-acre site limit, the building had to be LEED Gold certified and had to meet federal security standards. Though hundreds of architects joined, the Adjaye Associates’ design stood out among six finalists in 2009. On September 24th, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors to the public as the 19th museum of the Smithsonian institution.  It took four years to build after the groundbreaking in February of 2012.  The museum is on the Washington monument grounds with views of the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and several monuments.  It is the first museum on the Mall designed to sustainability standards with an area of 420,000 square-feet.

Exterior corona of the Adjaye Associates designed African American History and Culture Museum
The National Museum of African American History and Culture maintains a subtle profile in the landscape. Visitors can explore what it means to be an American and how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality reflect in African American history and culture.

Exterior Features

Wrapped in an ornamental bronze-coated aluminum lattice, the museum is a historical reference to the Benin shrines of West Africa and African American craftsmanship. In addition to beauty, the lattice density is adjustable through the seasons to control the amount of light entering the building. At the main entrance, a welcoming porch designed by Adjaye Associates has architectural roots in Africa, the Caribbean, and especially the American South.

Nearly 3 million people visited the NMAAHC in its first year of operation.  To date, the museum has collected more than 36,000 artifacts.  The Museum building is a community resource that helps visitors learn about themselves, their histories, and their common cultures.

Curious to learn about other inspirational Black architects?  Read about Paul Revere Williams or Norma Sklarek on Atomic Ranch magazine!

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