National Museum of African American History and Culture

Smithsonian Institution

Washington, D.C.

Project Info
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Washington, D.C.
Size: 397,000 SF on
10 levels (5 above and 5 below ground)
Tracking LEED GOLD

The museum, designed by the collaboration known as Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroup JJR—for which Perkins+Will's Phil Freelon served as lead architect—honors the significant social, economic, and cultural contributions that African Americans have made to this country over the last several centuries.

The design and construction of the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum, which includes exhibition galleries, an education center, a theater, an auditorium, a cafeteria, a store, and offices, was one of the largest and most complex building projects in the country.

The museum is also the most sustainable national museum ever built, and the greenest of all Smithsonian Institution buildings. It features such design elements as rainwater harvesting, roof-mounted photovoltaic solar panels, extensive daylighting, and high efficiency mechanical systems. It is tracking LEED Gold certification.

The distinctive three-tiered building exterior is inspired by the Yoruban caryatid, a traditional West African wooden sculpture that bears a crown, or a corona, on top. The resulting upward-reaching form is both a contrasting and complementary presence among its neighboring structures on the National Mall. The pattern on the bronze-colored corona, made up of 3,600 cast-aluminum panels weighing a total of 230 tons, was inspired by the ornate ironwork of Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana—much of which was created by enslaved and free African Americans. The visual impact of the corona changes over the course of the day and even the year, appearing quiet and somber at times, but bright and vibrant when exposed to sunlight.

With 60 percent of the structure underground, designers and engineers had to create a continuous retaining wall around the perimeter of the site—extending 65 feet down at its maximum height—to secure the building’s foundation in the marshland below Washington, D.C.

Photography credit: Alan Karchmer

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