The Unofficial Guide to the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Last updated: October 3rd 2016
BEFORE YOU GO TO NMAAHC
It’s free! However to the level of interest, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has implemented a timed entry pass system. Unfortunately timed entry passes are now sold out for the rest of the year. However you can secure passes for 2017 HERE. The good news is that there are same day passes available at 9:15 AM on a first come, first serve basis but word has it that people stand outside as early as 5am for a chance. That’s completely up to you. From what I’ve seen, many registered for more passes than they needed so there is a good chance that you will find someone in your circle or a stranger on site with spare tickets last-minute. Just ask around. On the day of your ticket, being on time or early is not necessary. Entry is only granted any time on or after the time stamped pass. I was very impressed with the ease of entry after opening day. However, if you don’t have more than one day scheduled, getting there on time does matter because you WILL need all the time you have. There have been some extended weekend hours but during the week, the museum closes at 7:30pm which actually means 7pm because that’s when they begin directing everyone towards the nearest exit. There are security screenings so please make note of items that are not allowed.
NAVIGATING THE NMAAHC
As I mentioned before, getting in isn’t the hard part. Inside is where you will need to reserve the most patience. The museum is designed to take visitors chronologically from our gruesome past to an uplifting present time and a hopeful future. It would be ideal to begin your experience from the lower concourses with Slavery and Freedom and work your way up through achievements and culture. There is one popular elevator outside of the theater that displays years back in time as you descend to the lowest level. However, your best bet is to take the elevator adjacent to the information desk.
Once you get downstairs, more than likely you will be greeted by a line. Concourse 3 is by far the most congested part of the museum because it is narrow and the most logical starting point in the facility.
At Concourse 2, it will be busy but there will be a lot more breathing room which is rather consistent throughout the rest of the museum. Since the lower concourses progress with ramps, there are no stairs needed until you get back the main level. This makes a smooth transition to the main level for those with wheelchairs and strollers.
THE BIG DEALS AND LONG WAITS AT NMAAHC
We have since gone a third time during normal hours and the flow of traffic was well managed and wait times were extremely minimal aside from the cafe.
- Slavery and Freedom: There is a slow-moving and natural flow as visitors appear to read every story and examine the artifacts on their way to the remnants from the São José slave ship. What many people may not realize is that you CAN move around and explore the rest of the floor instead. Wait time can be up to 40 minutes if line extends to the elevators near the restroom.
- Contemplative Court: You can easily spend 3 hours covering slavery, freedom and segregation. Most people will find the content mentally draining so I would highly recommend a visit here right across the theater to reflect and restore your spirits. There is no wait to enter. In fact, many people can miss it based on location.
- Southern Rail Car: This is one of the two artifacts this building was literally built around. Currently visitors are not allowed to walk through the vintage segregated passenger car.
- Emmett Till’s Memorial: You may see a line form by Southern Rail Car like shown above. This is to view Till’s original casket but it is restored. The feel is exactly how one would pay respects to the deceased during a viewing or wake. No pictures are allowed inside. Wait time can be up to an hour if a line forms entirely around the rail car.
- Angola Prison Guard Tower: This is the other artifact the building was built around. The average inmate was sentenced to 93 years at this plantation based, Louisiana State Penitentiary. Many housed in old slave quarters. Private individuals could even lease prisoners from here as well.
- Point of Pines (Plantation) Cabin: A slave shelter or gathering place.
- Sports: Visitors can enjoy seeing how african-americans broke barriers using their talents and the connection their achievements have during the civil rights movement.
- Chuck Berry’s Eldorado: The Musical Crossroads exhibit greets you with this stunning beauty.
- The Museum Shop: Closes at 5:30pm
- Greensboro Interactive Lunch Table: Visitors can learn about the various movements and ways segregation was fought while also exploring the consequences of those actions. Wait time varies up to 15 minutes.
- Production and Engineering Console: Visitors get 4 minutes to make their own hit record mixing sounds and adding effects. This was one of my favorite fun activities at the museum. There is usually only about one person ahead of you. To save time, you and a friend can team up on one record.
- The Step Show: Learn how to step and perform the routine learned.
- São José Search: Search and document artifacts from the sunken San José a slave ship buried in the deep blue sea.
- Driving While Black: Learn how to safely travel using The Negro Motorist Green-Book which tells you all the places you can stop for necessities with the least amount of trouble.
THE FOOD (SWEET HOME CAFÉ) AT NMAAHC
Seats 400 Price Range: $8-$15 (Dessert $5-$6) There are four stations representing various areas of cuisine.
- The Agricultural South
- The Creole Coast
- The North States
- The Western Range
The average wait to get in AND sit down with your food seems to be about 25-45 minutes. Most of the wait comes directly from The Creole Coast station (po’ boy and shrimp and grits). Yes, the Po’ Boys were HUGE and the shrimp and grits looked amazing but with a kid, I just didn’t want to wait any longer. Fortunately there are attendants that will come to allow those ordering from the other stations to enter sooner. Some of the main dishes are cooked right on the spot! I teased a few people with this video. lol
The desserts and beverages are self-served and there were no straws or plastic – only silverware. Fancy! So here’s the kicker…For the three of us, the damage was about $55. The cost isn’t easy on the pockets but the quality of food made it worth the treat. You may need a tad bit of salt on some of the dishes but there is LOADS of flavor unlike a normal cafeteria. I was pleased.
OPRAH WINFREY THEATER AT NMAAHC
Seats 350 After donating $21 million dollars on your own, its pretty nice to have this simple beauty named after you. The seats were comfortable with a few outlets nearby. As you can see, the corona shape was carried throughout here as well. In the theater, we watched a short film by Ava Duvernay. Only 10 minutes long but it showed an extremely powerful connection in black history told through six stories on the same date throughout a decade in time. I actually would like to see it again.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU NEED AT NMAAHC?
One day is simply not enough. Just think…8 levels, 13 exhibits…that is A LOT to cover. Most people will probably need about two trips to see everything and three or four to get the full experience. After about 4 our 5 hours you might get burned out or run out of time. Unfortunately most of us will probably only have one chance to visit before 2017. Everything is worth seeing at this museum so here are a few tips to make the most of your visit:
- Eat before you arrive (But leave some room for the cafe if you have time).
- Start in the lower concourse levels using the elevator adjacent to the information desk if allowed.
- If there is a long line to see something, skip it. Including the food. No disrespect to any of the artifacts or experience but in my opinion waiting in line for 45 minutes is not the most productive use of your time here especially with a ticket after 2pm. See what you can and then go back to what you missed if you have time.
- There is usually a bathroom available without a long wait. It will be worth finding.
- This might not be most kid-friendly museum so if you find your little one getting restless, take them to the second floor. There was little to no crowd and more than one interactive station to choose from. My four-year old loved it – especially performing in the step show and finding artifacts in the sea.
- Have an electronic device to keep your kid busy during the long waits or if they start to lose interest.
- Bring a backup power supply or if you must, bring your cellphone charger. I did see quite a few (unofficial) places to give your phone a boost when your battery runs low. 😉
- Don’t be afraid to split up. There is so much to see and after the main level and the interest between you can your company can change.
- If you’re looking for a party, just go to the fourth floor with for the Cultural Expressions galleries. That is where you find all the art, television, film, broadway and music. It was so much fun!
- Although the museum closes at 5:30pm, the gift shop closes much sooner. If you really want a souvenir you have to get there before 5:00pm.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is now my favorite Smithsonian museum of all time (Natural History is now number two lol). The experience is so moving and fulfilling. This place proves there is still so much us learn and accept about American history.
I’ve been thinking about sharing my family’s story next time we go. There are a few stations for you to record your experience/opinion on black history or of the museum itself.
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