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For architect of National Museum of African American History and Culture, it's personal

Phil Freelon, one of the project’s lead architects, talks to Curbed about designing both a building and a symbol

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (center) opened to the public on Saturday, September 24. It occupies what was the last open site on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Alan Karchmer

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. opened to much fanfare on Saturday, September 24, with speeches from—among others—Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, as well as celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith.

Looking up inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Alan Karchmer

The museum has been a long time coming: The project was finally authorized in 2003, after a decades of unsuccessful legislative attempts to gain funding, beginning in the 1970s and renewed with vigor in 1988. The concept of a federally owned museum of African-American history can be traced back as far 1915, making this, in all likelihood, the longest-awaited and shamefully overdue museum in U.S. history.

The building itself was designed by a team of firms that operated under the name Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR, who were awarded the project after winning a competition in 2009. They were faced with the task of designing not just a building, but a symbol, to be placed on the National Mall, itself already rife with symbolic architecture. Obviously, this was no easy thing.

"This building was...where everything would mean something. Without the symbolism, it would leave a vacuum," lead designer David Adjaye told our architecture critic, Alexandra Lange. And as lead architect Phil Freelon put it, "It is a museum for all of us, not just African-Americans. There is a lot to be learned about ourselves as Americans."

Freelon is the guest on this week’s episode of our podcast, The Curbed Appeal. It was an honor to speak with him on the eve of such a momentous occasion (the episode was filmed in the week leading up to the museum’s opening) and we discussed the team’s design process, what visitors will find inside, and more. Listen above, or read the whole interview down below.

Asad Syrkett:

Today, we have the distinct honor of talking to one of the lead designers, Phil Freelon, about the road to making the museum a reality.

Zoe Rosenberg:

Phil, thank you so much for joining us.

Phil Freelon:

It's my pleasure.

Asad:

Yeah, we're super, super honored to have you. For listeners who don't know, can you describe how you came to work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture? It's such a momentous occasion, and having this building finally be realized is something that a lot of people have been working on for quite some time.

Phil Freelon:

Yeah. This is a project that I had been interested in even before it really certain that it would happen. Let's go back to 2002, 2003, when George W. Bush had appointed a commission to study the possibility of a museum, and so I would go to DC one a quarter or so to participate and to observe those commission meetings, where they were discussing potential sites. This is before the director was hired, et cetera. It's been a dream for mine for a long time. Leading up to 2007, when we applied, myself and Max Bond, an architect in New York who's now deceased, we joined forces.

We would see each other at these commission meetings, and we decided, "Well, why don't we combine together and form an alliance and pursue this project." That's when we decided to try and go for the pre-design and programming phase of work. That's even prior to any of the design work of the competition. There was a portion of work that was advertising by the Smithsonian Institution to do all of the preliminary leg work and pre-design programming. We were successful in gaining that commission to work with the Smithsonian to figure out what could the museum be. It goes back almost ten years for me.

Zoe Rosenberg:

For our listeners who aren't familiar with what the museum encompasses or what it stands for, what it's program is, would you mind explaining that to us?

Phil Freelon:

Yes. I'll comment, too, that it's been ten years for me, but it's been a hundred years in the making because the idea first came up some time after the Civil War, where African-American veterans of that war came to Washington and made their request known. It's been off and on the agenda for quite some time.

The museum really does stand for what the title says. It's a museum of African-American history and culture, so there's a lot there that speaks to the legacy of African American's in this country and also looking forward, the contributions to culture, and literature, and music, and politics, and so on, up to today and beyond. It really is what the director says, and I agree with this.

It's really a way to look at America through the lens of African-American history and culture. One of the ways we do that is to use the building as part of that expression, so we try to design a structure and an experience that isn't simply housing exhibits and galleries. It's also in many ways beginning to tell the story through its iconic form and how that was derived.

Asad:

You're encompassing quite a bit of history, and you're trying to touch on popular culture, athletics success, and medical history, and all of the various ways that African Americans have contributed to U.S. society. How do you even begin to design for the ... I think it's 40,000-some-odd objects that are included in the museum. These are not just things that you're going to hang on the wall. There's so much that you have to really make special allowances for, in terms of the display. How did that process go, just out of curiosity?

Phil Freelon:

The 40,000 items in the collection are not all on display, and so there are some choices—curatorial decisions—that have to be made and have been made to help tell the story and put it into a context and into a sequence that makes sense. You bracket things.

We're starting at the year 1400, or thereabouts, when the global slave trade started more or less. That story then moves on through how the forced migration spread throughout the western hemisphere, and so on up from there. That's a good place to begin, but it's not the end. It's not all about victims and perpetrators and struggle, although, that aspect of our history is important to document.

There's also quite a bit of information that's uplifting and stories of celebration and rejuvenation, resilience. The museum is as much about those positive aspects as it is about remembering the past and telling the truth. Back to your question, how do you begin, there's a staff that includes, in the museum, curators. There was a scholarly advisory panel that had academics and scholars from all over the country. There was quite a bit of an advisory input into how the stories are told, what items would be used to tell the story, and how it would be structured and curated is an important part of it.

Asad:

I imagine for you this experience is not just professional and architectural but also an emotional experience. What was it like to work on a project with such emotional heft? I would imagine that there's a lot of pressure there, in addition to just getting your job done. Obviously, this is something that a lot of people are personally and emotionally invested in.

Phil Freelon:

It's personal to me as an African-American to be able to contribute to this huge endeavor and to add value in that way, through the architectural work and coordinating with the exhibit designers. Yes, we've felt the weight of that every day, but at the same time, we were well-prepared. This is a building type and a theme that we're well-familiar with, having designed a number of museums around the country.

Asad:

Absolutely.

Phil Freelon:

Although, this is by far the largest and the most in-depth of those that we've worked on. It came at a time in our career and in our firm where we felt well-prepared to take on the challenge.

Zoe Rosenberg:

What particularly did you want it to express at its onset when somebody who has never seen it before sees the building? Was there something particular that you wanted it to say to the people that would be visiting it and who would be embracing it?

Phil Freelon:

That's a great question. From the beginning, we felt that the museum should be distinctive. The mall is just filled with buildings that are marble, and concrete, and granite, shades of light gray, so they're nondescript in terms of their tonality. We thought it would be appropriate for this building to set itself apart by way of how it appears and the coloring and the materiality of it, and the form. That's a delicate balance because we also wanted to respect the very important location, the last build-able side on the mall, and literally was in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

The task then became how do you create something that's dignified and exuberant but also respectful of its context. That has been the challenge, and we feel like we've achieved that with a building that is simple in its form. It's square in its footprint. The corona, we call it, the exterior skin is angled at a dimension of seventeen and a half degrees, which mirrors the angle, the top of the Washington Monument.

Zoe Rosenberg:

That's so fascinating.

Phil Freelon:

Yeah, you can actually stand on the site and see that alignment of those two important neighboring structures. The pattern in the corona, the way it creates a gossamer, translucent pattern of openings, that is a reference back to some of the ornate ironwork that we see in places like New Orleans and Charleston, when African American artisans played a vital role in that aesthetic. Our pattern is a modern interpretation of that. In this way, we've been able to infuse African American and African influences into the building, create a distinctive form.

The use of the material, the bronze-type metallic coating that we have, that is referential to that ancient material that stands for longevity, durability, and quality. These are all part of the driving forces of the design that led us to what you see out there today.

Asad:

Being able to synthesize so many different aspects of African design and art and referencing what black craftsmen in the American south did in places like you noted, in New Orleans, I think is a really great clear, legible way for folks who don't know anything about architecture and design to immediately be able to connect with this thing that looks so different. Obviously, the mall is a place that holds special significance for African-Americans. It's quite amazing that the building does have the presence that it does. I think it's a credit to the work that you all did, so thank you for that.

Phil Freelon:

The team was incredible. We had input from quite an interesting group of people, including David Adjaye, who's a Tanzanian-born British architect. Max Bond, who as I mentioned before, he passed away as we were finishing the design competition, but he certainly had a strong hand in what you see there. He was widely considered the dean of African American architects, and our firm, who brought the history of working with cultural groups to help bring expression to their institutions. It really was a great team effort.

Asad:

We've been talking a lot about what it looks like when you're on the mall and from the outside, but I'm very curious to hear about any specific exhibitions or pieces and objects in the museum that excited you personally, and what the experience of being inside the building is like.

Phil Freelon:

Yes. There are many moments, and really, it's difficult to say, this particular place, or this location, or artifact is better or more poignant. It's a personal decision, so you may go in and find that the gallery that focuses on the military, involvement of African Americans in the military, is particularly moving because perhaps someone in your family was involved in that aspect of our history.

If you're in my age group and lived through and on into today and experienced the Civil Rights Movement, then there are aspects of that story that really resonate. There's the sheer joy of the music exhibit. That's something that everyone can relate to, and that's a point I want to make also, that this museum is about America and about African Americans, but it's a story that is universal and it's one for everybody. People from all over the world would be interested, and all Americans can come and enjoy this quintessential American story.

There's something pretty much for everyone. That sounds trite and cliché, but there is quite a bit of variety when you think about the history and the artifacts, ranging from Harriet Tubman's bible to Chuck Berry's candy apple red Cadillac, and the mothership from Parliament Funkadelic is there as well.

Zoe Rosenberg:

I love that.

Phil Freelon:

There's something literally for everyone.

Zoe Rosenberg:

We know that the façade of the building ... We know the considerations now that went behind that. As you started to mention earlier, there are things in the museum that are celebratory and there are things that are more somber.

Phil Freelon:

Yes.

Zoe Rosenberg:

How do you go about thinking about those spaces? Are they prepared by you as an architect? Are they different, or are they one in the same?

Phil Freelon:

They're quite different. For instance, the history gallery, which is the largest gallery space in the building, is located in a big volume that goes down sixty-five feet into the ground. That story begins in a smaller confined area that is lit dimly just to set the tone, and then as you move through that aspect of the history, it opens up into this broader expanse where you begin to see other artifacts of history. As you ascend, literally, you're going up ramps and moving upward in the story, it is an ascension, so you're feeling how history is elevating you coming through.

Because the space has a big volume to it, you can look across to where you have been and put history in the context. If you're at the Pullman railcar, which has segregated cabins there, and you look across and you might see the Tuskegee airmen aircraft on the other side of this large volume, it helps to give a different point of view of history, so it's not simply a linear ... It has cross-connections across the space.

We thought about that and how we would like for visitors to begin their journey with the history exhibit. You descend down an elevator or escalators to the beginning of that exhibit and work your way up to the present day, or up to 1968, which is sort of a pivot point in our history. The other galleries are above ground.

A lot of thought is given to how these different galleries are positioned in the building, their shape, their configuration, the use of technology, the use of artifacts. This is something that we've worked very carefully on with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, who were the exhibit designers. We did not want people to just come and walk across the threshold and they're in another place. We wanted this to be integrated, the architecture, the exterior, the landscape, the interior, and the exhibits to be a flowing experience, seamless one to the next.

Asad:

Right. When you mentioned the Pullman car and having the Tuskegee airmen's plane in the same hall, it sounds like there's quite a bit of conversation, if you will, between objects and the museum and then the exhibition spaces in the building itself. I'm quite excited to go down there and see it.

Phil Freelon:

Yes. There's a lot of quotes, and as you go through and read them, they're everywhere. There are thousands of them throughout the building, from everyday people on through to names we all remember and hold in high esteem. As these quotes are different sizes, they're in different places. They're on walls. They're on other aspects of the interior architecture. It's another way that we can listen and have history speak back to us. It really is quite powerful.

Zoe Rosenberg:

I think we've pretty well canvased the museum, but we're curious. What are two other projects that you are working on that you are excited about right now?

Phil Freelon:

That's a great question, as well. One in particular that is really exciting to me and our firm is the Motown Museum in Detroit.

Asad:

Great.

Zoe Rosenberg:

Yeah.

Phil Freelon:

This is happening right on the site where Berry Gordy first started Hitsville. It's a renovation of his house back in the '50s. That's going to be our full-scale artifact, restoring that and some of the recording areas in the basement where many of the tunes we're all familiar with happened right there. We're adding forty thousand square feet behind the legacy building, Hitsville being one of them, and there are three others. It becomes this constellation of legacy structures and new construction woven in together to make the visitor experience, including twenty thousand square feet of new exhibition space. There's a theater.

Zoe Rosenberg:

What are some kind of the things that'll be on display, if you have an idea yet?

Phil Freelon:

Yeah. There's quite a bit. There's a lot that we've been waiting to bring out of the stores to get back in into view for the public, so there's a lot of excitement about that, including some of the garments that were worn by the groups back in the '60s. It was a really special time for those groups who dressed a certain way, and Motown stood for a certain sophisticated approach to the music. All of that will be brought back to light. There'll be parts of the experience where you can go in and actually record your voice in the same space where Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye once sang.

Zoe Rosenberg:

I would love to do that.

Phil Freelon:

We want to make it as interactive as possible. It's going to be interesting.

Asad:

Yeah, one step closer to being Diana Ross.

Phil Freelon:

Yeah, right.

Zoe Rosenberg:

I think that was one. Do you have another one that you're interested in?

Phil Freelon:

I do. I do. There is a museum in Miami that we're working on that is focusing on the art of the African Diaspora, not simply African American, but the Diaspora is much broader than that, and so there's a lot in the Caribbean, and certainly the motherland. There are many collectors who are looking to have a place to exhibit and rotating shows, traveling exhibits, and to learn about how the art of the Diasporas influenced art in general, but also has created this genre that's very powerful in and of itself.

Asad:

What's the timeline for both of those projects, if you have a sense already and you can say?

Phil Freelon:

Yes. We're looking at early 2019 for the Motown Museum, and we're in the very early stages, not quite as far along on the Museum of the African Diasporian Art. That will be some time, depending on fundraising, five or six years out.

Asad:

Okay. Plenty of time for folks to get their train, plane, and bus tickets and get themselves out there to those places.

Phil Freelon:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Asad:

That's great. Was there anything else about either the National Museum of African American History and Culture or your other two projects that you wanted to note?

Phil Freelon:

I wanted to say one other thing about the museum in Washington, and this is another reference back to African-American culture. You'll notice coming from the mall side of the building, there is a structure that we call The Porch, and it's a free-span, about two hundred and forty feet. It's this welcoming gesture, and we know from our culture that the porch is a place to see and be seen. It's this transition from the exterior to the interior. Particularly in the south, it's a place of respite from the heat, and all of these things come into play there in Washington as the summers get very hot. We have a water feature there, as well. Part of it is moving water. Part of it is still. This incredible porch is creating its own micro-climate of cool air with the water moving that is really inviting people in, everyone into the building. We're excited about that aspect of the design, as well.

Asad:

Yeah, that sounds great.

Zoe Rosenberg:

I think that about wraps it up for us.

Phil Freelon:

Thank you. This has been great.

Asad:

Thank you.

Phil Freelon:

I appreciate the privilege of talking with you. We look forward to a great opening in a few days.

Zoe Rosenberg:

Thank you so much.

Asad:

Yeah, thank you again.

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