The new Smithsonian museum pays homage to the history and culture of the African American community. Here’s a look behind the scenes.

By Khalid Salaam
October 12, 2016
Where to Go to Celebrate Black History Month
Credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

Some 36,000 artifacts fill the 400,000-square-foot National Museum of African American History and Culture—a temple to African-American history that opened last month in Washington, D.C. Alas, the opening was so highly anticipated (President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Will Smith were all at its debut), that visitors will be hard-pressed to see those 36,000 artifacts until 2017. In fact, entrance tickets sold out for the remainder of 2016 within hours of the museum's opening.

To tide us all over, Travel + Leisure sat down with Rex M. Ellis, the museum’s Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs, to get his personal list of must-see exhibits—as well as a few behind-the-scenes moments.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

How did you go about highlighting segments of the black history?

The Defending/Defining Freedom exhibition suggests the era of segregation was one that needed to answer a question: Could African-Americans, once emancipated and legally free, integrate into American society as equal partners? The exhibit discusses the creation of a segregated society, and then explains how African-Americans created their own organizations and institutions.

Double Victory focuses on the military. You can look at the conversations between Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, and others who wanted to join the fight and join the [so-called] Double V campaign: a victory overseas and whether there would be a commensurate victory at home in terms of ending segregation.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Harriet Tubman
Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles L. Blockson

Which exhibit was most challenging for finding materials?

Hands down Slavery and Freedom, because the materials are scarce and we started from scratch in our collecting process. Most of the collecting came from auction houses, private collectors, and individuals who [sought us out]. We decided early on that we would not go to other institutions and museums and take [their] collections. [Instead], we were going to go out and find things where we could. Sixty percent of the items we have are from donations.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Slavery and Freedom Gallery
Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What's an example of a display piece that was donated?

Charles L. Blockson, a collector and bibliophile from Philly, had in his possession items from Harriet Tubman given to him by her family. When he found out about the museum, he decided [it] would be the best place for those items.

What was the process to decide which items were included?

We had conversations at colleges and universities between scholars. We also had a series of discussions and town hall meetings at a variety of places to [determine] what the grassroots wanted to see in an African-American museum—as well as what academics thought absolutely needed to be in a museum such as this. We also had a committee of advisors we could connect with at least four times a year. All objects had to come from the curators or director of the museum, and then we’d have an internal process where the person who requested the item had to justify and authenticate it.

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture
Credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

How did the museum decide how these thousands of artifacts were arranged?

We knew we had to have a history gallery as well as a community gallery to discuss military and sports. On the third floor is where you’ll find culture, music, film, television, and theater. There we talk about cultural expression—speech, hair, style, visual arts, the ways African-Americans created sculpture and portraiture. The music ranges from the colonial period to contemporary, with everything from bebop to hip-hop. It was well thought out and strategic.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Making a Way Out of No Way exhibit
Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What was the first major piece acquired for the collection?

A Jim Crow train car. We had to bring in all 76 tons of it, and think about how to [position] the artifact. It allows us to talk about the era of segregation. It allows people to go into the car and see what the stools look like, what the seats look like. It’s not abstract [or] part of a lecture, but something you can see. It’s probably the largest object we have and the most significant.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, 1968 and Beyond History Galleries
Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What do you hope visitors to take away from the museum?

A sense of pride and inspiration. An understanding that African-Americans have been through the gauntlet, but have found ways to stay resilient and to make a way out of no way.