The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Applause: Making History

On the eve of its September 24 grand opening, the long-awaited Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture beckons from its spot beside the Washington Monument. As unlike the iconic obelisk, as it could be, the 400,000-square-foot structure was a long-term collaborative effort by four acclaimed architecture firms.

The museum’s three-tiered exterior was designed by architect David Adjaye using 3,600 bronze-hued, cast-aluminum panels. Drawing on imagery from both African and American history, it evokes ornate ironwork created by slaves in 19th-century New Orleans. The panels admit daylight through their dappled surface, while openings frame views of the Washington Monument, the White House and other landmarks, reminding visitors that they are viewing the world through the distinctive lens of African American history and culture.

Designed by architect Philip Freelon, the interiors span nine levels—four of them below ground—housing exhibition galleries, educational spaces, a 350-seat theater, auditorium, café, and shop. The museum’s collection will trace 500 years of history, from 15th-century Africa to the present day. Highlights include the Harriet Tubman collection; an early-1800s slave cabin from South Carolina; a segregation-era Southern railway car; a Tuskegee Airmen trainer plane; an Angola Prison guard tower; and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac. An 1874 log house built and inhabited by free slaves in Poolesville, Maryland, will also be on view. Visit nmaahc.si.edu.

LEAD DESIGNERS: DAVID ADJAYE, OBE; PHILIP FREELON, FAIA, Freelon, Adjaye, Bond/SmithGroupJJR. CONSTRUCTION: Clark/Smoot/Russell.