Film: 'The Black Museum' honors the African diaspora

The National Museum of African American History and Culture with the Washington Monument in the background.

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BRATTLEBORO — At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, 118 Elliot will screen Oliver Hardt's "The Black Museum" (2017, Germany, 52 minutes) as part of the monthly Architecture + Design Film Series. All A + D Film Series screenings are free and open to the public. Desmond Peeples is a local writer and the assistant director of 118 Elliot.

"Pilgrimage." Say the word to yourself a few times. What comes to mind? My guess is you're thinking of a place, somewhere special, even sacred to you. The place will be different depending on how you think of yourself — Mecca for Muslims, Graceland for Elvis fans, etc.—but almost every community can tie itself to at least one site, some place where people can journey from anywhere to share in their collective roots. For African Americans, that shared place has always been Africa, the distant motherland, a visit to which is laughably out of the question for many of us. But after watching Oliver Hardt's 2017 documentary, The Black Museum, I'm happy to say that a second place comes to mind when I think, "pilgrimage."

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors in 2016, and the building has been full to bursting with visitors ever since. A year after its opening, Oliver Hardt—an Afro-German director known, according to his website, for exploring "black history and culture with a strong emphasis on architecture, design and contemporary art,"— released The Black Museum, a documentary celebrating the museum as the cultural and architectural phenomenon it is. 

True to Hardt's reputation, The Black Museum's attention is balanced between cultural and architectural interests. As firmly grounded in history and zeitgeist as the film is, equal screen time is given to conversation with NMAAHC staff and figures like David Adjaye, the museum's Ghanaian-British lead designer, who illuminate the parallels between the building's structural and cultural foundations. Adjaye describes the museum's form, a triple-headed ziggurat, as a "crown," an "upward form;" he calls the museum's plot, kitty-corner from the Washington Monument, a "hinge moment, the knuckle" of the National Mall. The building's intricately patterned bronze exterior is an homage to the African American blacksmiths who made many of the iconic cast iron balconies and screens found in cities like New Orleans and Charleston. The museum doesn't just have an entrance, it has a "welcoming porch" — a symbol of comfort, community, and home. At every turn, the museum is, as David Adjaye says, a building in which the "container matches the content."

Still, The Black Museum's ultimate focus isn't the container, but rather the content that makes the container so necessary. The museum's collection spans centuries of Black history and culture, carrying our story from the mid-15th Century through to the present. Throughout the film, we're treated to snippets of exhibits and close-up shots of artifacts that bring to life the long, haunting, exuberant story this museum was built to tell: Yoruba statues and slave ship relics, Emmett Till's coffin and a Vietnam soldier's Black Power jacket, a plastic afro pick from the 70s side by side with a wooden pick from Ghana; exhibitions on Black liberation and the Vietnam War, on contemporary Black art and Afrofuturism.

The film's real weight is in the people it depicts. In interviews with everyone from architects and curators to visitors young and old, black and white, Hardt centers the shared experience that drives the museum. The museum's Founding Director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, calls the institution a "place where people can come together and grapple with what has separated them." As a nation, the United States is still reckoning with the African American experience. And as a people in diaspora, African Americans have long been reckoning with our experience in the dark, on the margins—but now we have a shared space. A site where we can see ourselves and be seen, as Bunch says, "not just as a people who have suffered, but a people who have loved, celebrated, created, and transformed."

In The Black Museum, Hardt captures both the deep sorrow and utter joy that the museum represents, and he honors the subject with his unobtrusive directing style. To me, the happiest images are of the crowds: endless streams of Black folks crowding around West African artifacts and Black Power memorabilia, smiling Black parents tugging curious Black toddlers through the gleaming halls, Black elders resting out in the porch's shade, remembering. That's what I see when I think, "pilgrimage."