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The Smithsonian Institution’s newest museum opened to great fanfare in Washington DC in 2016. The National Museum of African American History and Culture documents 700 years of heritage in ways that are often stark, sometimes entertaining, and always educational and engaging. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of a visit.

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Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

1. Book tickets in advance

For the most part, the museum requires visitors to have timed-entry tickets. These can be acquired for free on the museum’s website. Alternatively, you can risk standing in line first thing in the morning for same-day tickets, but this isn’t a sure bet, particularly on weekends.

A United States passport (.1) issued to James Arthur Baldwin on August 2, 1965.

A United States passport (.1) issued to James Arthur Baldwin on August 2, 1965.  | Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

2. Try to get a morning entry

If you get tickets ahead of time, try to get morning entry tickets. Since the museum is so massive (400,000 square feet), you’ll need the better part of the day to explore.

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

3. Start your visit on the lower floors

The museum is intentionally designed from the bottom up, chronicling the darkest days of African American history deep in the bowels of the museum. The bottom-most floor, which documents the years between 1400 and 1877, focuses largely on slavery, the Civil War and Emancipation. The slavery portion of this section is purposely designed as a tight, barely-lit narrow space. It’s also text-heavy, so it can take some time to work one’s way through. But as the history evolves into Emancipation, the display area opens up.

A Southern Railway No. 1200 heavyweight passenger coach with segregated compartments. | Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

A Southern Railway No. 1200 heavyweight passenger coach with segregated compartments. | Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

4. Get to know the layout, then prioritize

There’s a lot to see, so if time is limited, prioritize what interests you most. In the next section of the museum, visitors learn about both the setbacks and the progress of the African American community post-Civil War. Concourse 2 covers the Era of Segregation between 1876 and 1968. Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Jim Crow era and segregation are explored in depth. Among the interesting exhibits in this section are a segregated Southern Railways car and an interactive lunch counter (reminiscent of the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth sit-in), where visitors can learn about civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s.

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Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

5. Don’t overlook any of the big highlights

Concourse 3 covers A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond. Besides the highlights mentioned earlier, this area documents everything from the race riots in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Black Lives Matter movement to the inauguration and administration of President Barack Obama.

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

6. Take a break

Before heading to the above-ground galleries, take a break. Soak up what you’ve scrutinized in the Contemplation Court, with its waterfall cascading from the roof. Another option—grab a bite at the Sweet Home Cafe before tackling the upper floors.

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

7. Don’t miss the music…

Next, go up to the Culture Galleries on Level 4, arguably the most entertaining section of the museum. In one section, explore a Music Hall of Fame, covering African American pioneers in classical, gospel, jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, and hip hop genres. You’ll get to see MC Hammer’s billowing pants, Chuck Berry’s brilliant red Cadillac, Michael Jackson’s fedora, and a variety of instruments used by famous musicians. Level 4 also houses a visual arts gallery and a section covering African Americans in the theater.

A Negro American League baseball poster featuring Satchel Paige and Goose Tatum. | Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

A Negro American League baseball poster featuring Satchel Paige and Goose Tatum. | Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

8. …or the sports

The Community Galleries on Level 3 focus on education, religion, the military and sports. The extensive sports exhibition features fascinating films and memorabilia from groundbreakers like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson and Venus and Serena Williams.

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

9. Marvel at the museum’s architecture

As you leave, consider the architecture of the museum building. The exterior features two distinct design elements. The Corona consists of 3,600 bronze-colored aluminum panels, and is evocative of African caryatids, or sculptures of crowned figures. The building’s main entrance is a welcoming porch, which has architectural roots in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora. By wrapping the building in ornamental metal lattice, the architects are paying homage to ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans.

 

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Tagged: Family time, Washington DC

Laura Powell

Laura Powell

Laura is a 20-year veteran travel journalist. She was CNN's first travel reporter, and has written for publications ranging from Alaska Airlines Magazine to The Washington Post. Find her at the www.dailysuitcase.com or on Twitter: @dailysuitcase

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