Exterior photo of the NMAAHC with the Washington Monument in the background

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington, D.C.
African American History Boldly Visualized

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is the result of a decades-long journey toward the commemoration of black history and culture. The building, located on the National Mall, establishes a strong connection to both its unique site and America’s long-standing and often overlooked African American heritage.

The NMAAHC rethinks the role of civic institutions in the 21st century, offering new modes of user experience and engagement. It presents a new form of museum: one that prioritizes cultural narrative and identity and that gives form to untold stories, establishing an empowering emotional context for positive social change. As such, it operates simultaneously as a museum, a memorial, and space for cross-cultural collaboration and learning.


The building shape was inspired by the Yoruban caryatid, a traditional West African post or column.

The corona at the top of the caryatid was the key design driver for the museum’s three-tiered exterior form. With angled walls reaching upward, this iconic building profile presents a distinctive and complementary presence among its neighboring structures on the National Mall.

The form itself works as a passive climate-controlling system. The bronze façade sits away from the building, filtering daylight while reducing its heating effects.
The pattern cast into the 3,600 bronze-colored corona panels alludes to the ornate ironwork found in southern cities typically designed and fabricated by Americans of African descent. The angle matches the 17-degree angle of the Washington Monument.
Exhibiting Artifacts

Several prominent artifacts are exhibited in the space in order of historical timeframe, allowing viewers to understand their juxtaposition in time without the use of a graphic timeline. Of note, a ballast recovered from a confirmed slave ship, a restored segregation-era rail car, two slave-era cabins, and the Angola Guard Tower form exhibits in the space.

Below ground, the ambiance is both monumental and contemplative, expressed by the triple height history gallery.
Contemplative Court

Technology was implemented in ways that are not readily apparent. The Contemplative Court showcases a cylindrical cascade of water flowing from an elliptical skylight 45 feet above. This engineering and design challenge focused on “invisible” technology to allow for an emotionally refreshing experience many patrons need as they make their way through potentially disturbing content.

Multi-Generational Design
To reach a multi-generational audience, exhibit design focused on intentional technology, positioning, and lower viewing angles to create experiences that are welcoming to all.
The exhibits were driven by a number of emotional themes that included resilience, movement, and memory.
The building’s main entrance features a sweeping front porch with a reflecting pool, welcoming all who approach it from the National Mall.
Site Strategy

Located on the National Mall’s last buildable parcel, the museum is positioned at the transition point between the highly ordered geometry of the mall and the pastoral grounds surrounding the Washington Monument. Responsive to both conditions, the building footprint is symmetrical, relating to the classical language of the mall. Conversely, the site design mimics the organic, curved pathways of the grounds.

60 Percent of the Structure is Underground

The design and construction of the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum, was one of the largest and most complex building projects in the U.S. when it was built. 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.

Architectural Collaboration:
Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup (Freelon is now part of Perkins&Will)

Project Team

Kenneth Luker
Zena Howard
Phil Freelon (1953-2019)