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African-American Museum is worth waiting for

WASHINGTON — It’s a project frequently referred to as “100 years in the making.” But if your travel plans include a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, be prepared to wait a while longer. The next tickets become available online May 3 at 9 a.m. — for admission in August.

Since the museum opened last September, the culmination of a dream conceived in 1915 by African American Civil war veterans, more than 1 million visitors have waited patiently to enter it. (The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, leading some to call it the Blacksonian, which is great deal easier to pronounce than NMAAHC.)

Once inside, visitors wait even more to view some of the 37,000 objects on display. If you’re the type of museum-goer who could roller skate through the Louvre, you might be satisfied in two hours. But many visitors take six to absorb the full experience.

Typical lines for entrance to the lowest level of the museum, which document the African American experience from 1400 to 1968 — a slave cabin, the casket of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Jim Crow railroad car — last 45 minutes. Those waiting share space with equally-long lines of others waiting to sample food — Creole shrimp and grits, Gullah style Hoppin’ John, braised short ribs — in the 400-seat Sweet Home Cafe.

“I don’t see the lines getting any shorter,” the museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch, said in an interview last month. “I don’t think we’re going to have those moments when I can bounce a basketball through the museum — at least not for the next three or four or five years.”

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“The museum’s design has also caused choke-points,” observed a reviewer in The Washington Post. “For example, the intentionally cramped entrance to the slavery section on the lowest level can’t handle the number of people who can fit into the massive elevator that ferries guests below ground. Museum officials have decided to not fill the elevator to capacity, which causes lines at the elevator two levels above.”

Traffic in the three floors above the Heritage Hall entrance level, which include a gift shop — T-shirts, coffee mugs, Kwanzaa items — flows more easily.

Level 2, “Explore Your Family History,” offers interactive displays. There’s the front end of a blue, 1949 Oldsmobile. Seated behind it in “the driver’s seat,” a six-year-old boy from Atlanta swipes a screen that calls up scenes of what he might have experienced if he were taking a trip in the ‘40s from Chicago to grandma’s house in Alabama. He sees signs on restaurants in Indiana refusing to serve “Negroes.” Gas stations in Kentucky whose pumps operated only for whites. One picture advises bringing an empty coffee can along because not all restrooms would accommodate him and his family.

On the same level, in a quiet room lined with computers, a man from Long Island searches for information about his great-grandfather. Spencer Thompson, he learns, lived in South Carolina in 1850, but was not a slave.

Level 3, “Community Galleries,”, honors African American Medal of Honor winners in the “Military Experience” gallery and sports stars in the “Leveling the Playing Field gallery.” An imposing feature in the sports wing is a life-sized statue of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised an Olympian controversy with their black power salute during the playing of our National Anthem at the 1968 Games in Mexico City (only the most devout football fans might know that Smith played for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969 — two games, one reception, 41 yards).

The museum tops out on Level 4, “Cultural Expressions,” two cellphone friendly displays dominate the “Musical Crossroads” gallery: the 1,200-pound Holy Mothership prop used at Parliament-Funkadelic concerts and the late Chuck Berry’s apple-red 1973 Cadillac. The car previously had been driven onto the stage for the documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!,” which was filmed at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. That was the same theater from which he had been denied admission as a child because of his race.

An apt analogy, perhaps, for a museum that’s well worth the wait.

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